Looking Back: Jaws

Looking Back: Jaws

Here’s to STILL Swimming with Bow-Legged Women
A Critic Looks back at Jaws

 

Talk about sharks. If you ever want to feel even more cynical about the flimflam, snakeoil-peddling, business side of H’Wood, read Peter Biskind’s expertly written, venom-tongued, warts-n-all tell-all Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, which chronicles what’s possibly the most fertile decade — creatively and financially — for the Big 7 film studios (take it from me, a guy who turned down a mail room job at New Line Cinema because spending any time in their Beverly Hills offices made The Day of the Locusts look like a plucky Disney princess story). The subject of the book, 70s films and filmmakers, is my favorite period in filmmaking history, a stretch that just happened to birth the modern blockbuster with a certain 1975 classic called Jaws, pretty much a horror movie featuring a great white shark as the monster. Biskind’s book chronicles the epic production of this film in great acerbic detail. Here, I’ll provide some bullet points along with my recollections of a recent screening, which left me with the opinion that film’s first bona fide summer popcorn blockbuster still possesses as thrilling and entertaining a bite as it did nearly 40 years ago.
• Based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel of the same name, the property was already a massive hit before it hit the screen. According to The New York Times, the book spent 40 weeks on their bestseller list and went on to sell 20 million copies. It was only a matter of time before H’Wood came knocking. In this case, the rights got snagged in 1973 by Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown before the book was even published. Though he would never again see the success of his debut novel, the author would go on to get several other titles published, pretty much all of them nautically-themed — The Deep (about sunken treasure), The Island (about pirates), The Beast (about a giant squid) and White Shark (about … well, you know). Even when he wasn’t turning out books, Benchley wrote articles on oceanographic and sea life conservation up to his death in 2006. My friend Dan recollected meeting the author during a research outing for one of these pieces. While in the Navy, Dan was working on a nuclear submarine that played host to Benchley one day while it was docked in Groton, Connecticut. The author sat next to my friend in the galley and asked what he did. Electrical engineering, it turned out. When Benchley remarked that he wrote Jaws, Dan simply looked unimpressed. After all, considering the context of handling the complex wiring that powered America’s deadliest line of defense, writing beach reading just didn’t come close in terms of important jobs. Dan stood up, cleared his breakfast tray and got back to work while Benchley just sat there. But I digress.
• Meanwhile, back in 1974, production on Jaws commenced. Numerous screenwriters and drafts came and went before a serviceable script surfaced. The captain of this ship, director Steven Spielberg, smartly wanted most of Benchley’s meandering subplots deep sixed in order to focus solely on, well, Jaws himself. Streamlined, the existing story played out like this: A police chief (Roy Scheider), marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and seasoned fisherman (Robert Shaw) set out to stop a gigantic great white that’s threatening the island town of Amity during its busiest tourist season — short, sweet, shark.
•  Principal photography began in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts in May … only the shark didn’t work. That is, the mechanical rubber shark built by Universal Studio technicians kept breaking down. My friend Aaron Fiore played a young George Lucas in an award-winning short comedy called Courage & Stupidity, which presented the plight of then-unproven director Spielberg (played by Todd Wall) to overcome the problem of making a shark film with no shark just as the studio bosses were moving in to shut down production and fire the director. Writer/director Darin Beckstead may’ve fictionalized much of the goings on, but the general behind-the-scenes story remains true by all accounts, firing and all. No one thought that Jaws would be a hit, its crew included. On set, crew members even nicknamed the production Flaws.
•  Regardless of the legendary technical problems that plagued the production, however, the production also boasted a soon-to-be legendary talent who still would’ve been on a superstar trajectory whether the mechanical shark worked or not. Indeed, the path to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln may’ve been different without Jaws, but I’d like to argue that this director was always bound for greatness. Spielberg cut his teeth on television (Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, Marcus Welby, M.D.) and already had a few flicks under his belt (Duel, Sugarland Express), but consider that his landmark filmmaking touchstones were already in full effect in Jaws: framing ordinary people in extraordinary situations; maintaining humanity and morals while facing inhuman terror; finding humor even in the most horrific of moments; zoom-in close ups of his star’s awe-struck faces. It’s all there, along with soon-to-be frequent collaborators John Williams (giving us an unforgettable — admit it, it’s playing in your head right now — score) and Richard Dreyfuss (giving us a quirky career-making performance). Roy Scheider, who Spielberg admired in another 70s classic called The French Connection, brings an authentic feel to the lead character, “Police Chief Brody,” which grounds the drama all the more. Luckily, the script developed the players beyond caricatures. Perhaps, no character evinces this more than Robert Shaw’s “Quint,” who turns from a salty son of a sea cook into a tortured survivor with one speech that gets burned into your mind forever from the first time you hear it. More on that later, however.
And yes, the rubber mechanical shark looked a bit dodgy. It looked dodgy back then as well, however, which is why Spielberg hid it away until nearly the end of the film … well, that and the fact that it luckily kept breaking, that is. Regardless of any early setbacks, all aspects of his production — from letter perfect performances to expertly written dialogue to a powerful score to masterful direction — amounts to a ridiculously exhilarating scaremaker of the highest order — then, now and for years to come. Granted, Jaws didn’t invent the genre. In fact, the film employs a Hitchcockian style of suspense in building up to a slowburn reveal of the actual shark. At its heart, the film remains a first-rate monster movie that often baits its audience from the creature’s underwater point of view in the tradition of Universal horror classic, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Indeed, Spieldberg knew his film history which is a major reason why he became a part of film history.
•  Jaws went on to become the highest-grossing film in history until Star Wars stormed the box office in 1977. It also bagged Academy Awards for film editing, best score and sound. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment remains the fact that it is regarded by many as one of the greatest films of all time, this critic included. The fact that this well weathered all-time classic remains the “Quint-essential” shark film despite many imitators, however, stands testament to the fact that Jaws holds up beautifully in an age of photo-realistic computer effects.
•  When talk came of Jaws 2, Spielberg initially wanted nothing to do with the inevitable sequel. At one point during pre-production of the film, however, he reportedly entertained one possibility. What if they made it a prequel based solely on Quint’s searing USS Indianapolis speech, a chilling first-hand account of hundreds of sailors getting picked off by sharks in icy waters following their vessel getting torpedoed that was written by writer/director John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn)? The sharks at Universal, of course, said “no.” Perhaps, this muted prequel idea remains one of H’Wood’s greatest unfulfilled coulda-beens. Without this follow-up, we’ll just have to make do with the scary near perfection of Jaws. Lucky us.

Screens

Screens

Opening this weekend

Sex Tape
Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel
Leading back to her debut in The Mask, Cameron Diaz has certainly had her share of box office hits (Charlie’s Angels, the Shrek franchise). With My Best Friend’s Wedding, this former model proved that she had comedy chops too. It was with raunchy adult comedy There’s Something About Mary, however, that this comedienne truly achieved star status. With Bad Teacher, Diaz gets dirrrrrrty again (think: Dangerous Minds meets Bad Santa). In this R-rated comedy, a foul-mouthed and inappropriate teacher (Diaz) sets in motion her plan to win over a rich handsome substitute (Timberlake) while fighting off the advances of an irreverent gym teacher (Jason Segel). The Plus: The players. Director Jake Kasdan has done comedy before (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) and done it well besides (Orange County). Here, he directs Diaz (Knight and Day), Timberlake (The Social Network), Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and Lucy Punch (Dinner for Schmucks). The Minus: The competition. In a summer full of superheroes and sequels, the box office could sure use some counter-programming like this original comedy. The problem is, this is the third of three R-rated comedies being released in a month, following in the heels of Bridesmaids and loafers of Hangover Part II.

The Purge: Anarchy
Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo
In this R-rated thriller, a young couple (Grillo, Ejogo) struggles to survive on the streets after their car breaks down right as the annual purge commences. The Plus: The genre. Horror flicks have a knack for becoming surprise summer hits. Last July, The Conjuring scared up over $318 million worldwide. Despite poor reviews, The Purge also proved a hit last summer at the U.S. box office, opening at $34 million and going on to make nearly double that amount. It looks like the producers are starting over, smartly keeping the basic premise, but bringing in a cast of relative unknowns. The Minus: The odds. One weekend, four new releases (the PG-13-rates Rob Reiner-directed And So it Goes starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton and the PG-rated Planes: Fire & Rescue are also bowing this weekend) … there’s not room enough for all of them in an already crowded box office. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will rue the weekend again, but achieving second place will truly be a dogfight.

 

Now Playing

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Gary Oldman, Keri Russell
**** — The Chimps are Alright
While the interesting but hopelessly flawed last chapter gave Rise to a rousing, but slow, franchise rejuvenator, the latest Apes marks the Dawn of something much better — a thinking man’s crowd pleaser every bit as solidly entertaining and thought provoking as the 1968 trailblazer. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, survivors of the simian plague (Oldman, Russell, Jason Clarke) trigger an all-out war between humanity and Caesar’s growing forces. Set not so much in a YA Dystopia, but in a post-Ape-lyptic San Francisco where humans have sought refuge in a heavily guarded compound, the flick is kind enough to catch up both the forgettable and those who didn’t see Rise of the Planet of the Apes with an introductory catch-up summation that’s never obtrusive. In fact, done mostly with mock news footage, it actually plays into the narrative quite nicely. But that’s when the exiting dynamic — Ape semi-civilization meets Simian flu-ravaged humanity — starts heating to a white hot intensity. When humanity’s last stand gets frames for an assassination and geo-politics turn into outright war, however, that’s when Dawn truly boils over with some timely social commentary that never seems too preachy. Thankfully, the action and intrigue rarely lets up which bodes exceedingly well for the forthcoming sequel. Boasting A-Grade talent that’s not necessarily A-List so far as bankability, the actors never overshadow character. Thanks to motion capture technology making leaps and bounds despite already looking sharp in 2005’s King Kong, mo-capped actors now generate photo-realistic performances. When you have an actor as ridiculously spot-on brilliant as Andy Serkis, however, you’re guaranteed a gold standard. Here, the Apes are the thing, which director Matt Reeves emphasizes to a T. Taking over for Rise director Rupert Wyatt, he imbues the adventure and human beats with all if the dark emotional resonance on display in his criminally underappreciated ace horror remake Let Me In.

Begin Again
Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley
**** — Once More with Feeling
Singing a similar tune in a bigger venue, John Carney’s fun soulful follow up to Once mostly hits high notes. In this R-rated musical-dramedy from director John Carney (Once), a chance encounter between a disgraced music-business executive (Ruffalo) and a young singer-songwriter (Knightley) turns into a promising collaboration. Sure, New York City replaces Dublin and the main character proves to be another heartbroken singer-songwriter finding a career-making muse but the canvas becomes much bigger. The stakes, of course, remain the same which ground this melodic character piece. Knowing that the achingly tuneful, youthful and beautiful Once is a hard act to follow, writer-director Carney doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Rather, he changes the playing duke and takes a more pointed acerbic look at the music industry. Backed by some amazing casting and a hit worthy songbook, Begin Again gracefully sets toes tapping and hearts fluttering. We knew Carney was aces at marrying music and material. We just didn’t know that Kiera Knightley wound realize this role so lovely. Warbling as beautifully as she conveys heartbreak and passion, this actress astounds. Likewise, minus the singing, gives an excellently nuanced performance — desperate, energetic and blue in one fell swoop. Adam Levine assumes the usually thankless heel role. Evincing a voice as polished and a swagger as knowing as the greatest 70s singer-songwriters, he falls so seamlessly into the tapestry that you begin to wonder if he’s really aware that a lot of the film’s cynical music biz critique gets aimed squarely at his real-life pop star persona.

Tammy
Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon
*1/2 — Serenity Theft
Discontinuing a hot streak that began with the hilarious bouquet Bridesmaids and carried through the average, but still amusing The Heat, comedienne Melissa McCarthy bottoms out with this Tourist Trap of a roadtrip comedy. In this R-rated comedy, a woman (McCarthy) hits the road with her profane, hard-drinking grandmother (Sarandon) after getting fired and catching her husband two-timing. The main character proves to be a woman undergoing a personal crisis but the trailer focuses on her perpetrating a burger joint stick-up which — before you’ve ever entered the theater — makes her wildly unsympathetic. Unfortunately, this moment ends up as the only stretch of Tammy that even approaches being humorous. When a flick uses the main character’s name as its title, you would expect some sort of character development to occur at some point. With Tammy, you’d be dead wrong, however. Worse, despite boasting an R-rating, this comedy circumvents the traditional bawdy route … not because it’s high minded, but because the raunchy gags and bits completely miss their mark.

 

Small Screens

Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows
** — Shark Weak
In honor of the Everhart shark exhibit, trap, er, treat yourself to an I-Tunes or Amazon download of Deep Blue Sea. In this R-rated thriller, a scientific crew (Jane, Burrows, Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J) on an isolated research facility become the bait as three intelligent sharks fight back. If you take a ludicrous plot involving super smart sharks, an impossible setting aping Sealab 2021 and improbable casting pitting LL Cool J, a failed Punisher and the future Nick Fury against a CGI dino-fish, you know you’ve just stepped in Deep Blue something. Just because this muddled undersea non-thriller winks at the audience as if to say “Hey, we’re going for a B-Movie feel” doesn’t excuse cheap filmmaking tricks, lazy writing and/or make this Z-Grade pill go down any easier. Your ears get subjected to “Beneath its glassy surface … a world of gliding monsters.” And THEN Michael Rappaport shows up! Chewing more scenery than Sterling Hayden on a bender, he and the rest of the cast go for broke, proactively using histrionics to drown out the inevitable Rifftrax quipping that surely followed. Sure, it puts forth a phony baloney backstory about using shark brains to find an Alzheimer’s cure, but the only ones who will want to perpetually forget this moment are moviegoers. “What you’ve done is knocked us down the god damn food chain.” Yep, this line gets delivered by Jane … with some deathly serious rage-tinged vigor, it must be said. Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger director Renny Harlin is capable of crafting over-the-top thrills and, truthfully, Deep Blue Sea boasts a few. Here, however, everything — from the lines spoken to the bodies eaten — gets over-the-top treatment. Only two of the cast make it out of this Grindhouse wannabe (think: Locked Jaws) alive, but no one truly gets away without some psychological damage … audiences mostly.

Screens

Screens

Opening This Week

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Gary Oldman, Keri Russell
Those damn dirty apes are at it again! After 1968’s Planet of the Apes went, well, ape at the box office, it spawned four sequels (Beneath the …, Escape from …, Conquest of… and Battle for…), a TV series (duh, Planet of…) and an animated series (Return to…). Since Tim Burton’s lukewarmly received remake in 2001, however, the franchise lay dormant … until 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes reignited the franchise to the good graces of audiences and critics, paving the way for this inevitable sequel. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, survivors of the simian plague (Oldman, Russell, Jason Clarke) trigger an all-out war between humanity and Caesar’s growing forces. The Plus: The players. Here, Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) directs Oldman (The Dark Knight Rises), Russell (FX’s The Americans), Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty), Codi Smit-McPhee (The Road) Andy Serkis (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and Judy Greer (Carrie). The Minus: The switcheroo. After signing on for this sequel, Rise director Rupert Wyatt got replaced by Reeves. Then, the release got moved from May to July 18 to July 11. Lastly, Rise star James Franco, who reportedly wasn’t approached about returning, publicly rebuked the producers for including leftover footage of the actor from the previous flick. With another sequel already scheduled for July 29, 2016, 20th Century Fox had better make up its mind on a lot of factors.

 

Now Playing

Tammy
Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon
*1/2 — Serenity Theft
Discontinuing a hot streak that began with the hilarious bouquet Bridesmaids and carried through the average, but still amusing, The Heat, comedienne Melissa McCarthy bottoms out with this tourist trap of a road trip comedy. In this R-rated comedy, a woman (McCarthy) hits the road with her profane, hard-drinking grandmother (Sarandon) after getting fired and catching her husband two-timing. The main character proves to be a woman undergoing a personal crisis, but the trailer focuses on her perpetrating a burger joint stick-up which — before you’ve ever entered the theater — makes her wildly unsympathetic. Why would Warner Brothers do this? Well, this moment ends up as the only stretch of Tammy that even approaches being humorous. When a flick uses the main character’s name as its title, you would expect some sort of character development to occur at some point. With Tammy, you’d be dead wrong, however. Worse, despite boasting an R-rating, this comedy circumvents the traditional bawdy route … not because it’s high minded, but because the raunchy gags and bits completely miss their mark. The advertising lures moviegoers in for a buddy comedy, but there’s virtually no comic back and forth between the leads. Such a format usually employs a straight woman/stooge dynamic, but neither McCarthy nor a wasted Sarandon assume these roles. Here, only audience members end up to be the stooge. Any discussion about this talented funnywoman’s plus-sized weight needs to get squashed. America boasts a high percentage of overweight citizens and it only makes sense that H’Wood cast beyond stick figures to depict a more representative demographic. The more important question comes down to a funny quotient, as in “Does she get laughs?” Sadly, she doesn’t. The story isn’t even half-baked — it’s raw ingredients in need of numerous drafts and script doctoring. Tammy doesn’t necessarily follow a predictable path because the movie has no direction. In a recent Variety cover story, it was reported that McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone (who directed and co-wrote the script with his wife) have six projects lined up for production in the near future. If Tammy is any sign as to what’s to come, they should just stop while they’re behind.

Transformers: Age of Extinction
Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz
** — Daft of the Moon
Transmogrifying from a potentially cool blockbuster into an overlong muddled mess in five easy feces, this fourth live action big-screen go-round for the Hasbro toy can’t even manage to break even for eager moviegoers. It only nearly breaks even, mind you, because of the weapons grade CGI, special effects and sound effects.  In this PG-13-rated sci-fi auctioner, an automobile mechanic/inventor (Wahlberg) and his daughter (Peltz) make a discovery that draws the warring Autobots and Decepticons — and a paranoid government official (Kelsey Grammar) — in on them. About halfway through the action, the story loses you…not because it’s overly complex like Pi or, say, Back to the Future II, but because the script just ceases to matter in a deluge of quips and explosions. Funny enough, it starts out with great promise, slow building a streamlined down home, weird science conspiracy take into an overly bombastic TV mini-series length product placement crap-travaganza. The length, of course, seals the deal. Clocking in at nearly three hours, Age of Extinction feels like it lasts longer than the same childhood in which you actually made up better stories while you played with Transformers.

Deliver Us from Evil
Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez
** — American Borer Story
Despite rocking an edgy setting and some hard-charging performances, H’Wood’s latest dust-up with paranormal activity can’t manage to Deliver Us any original thrills. In this R-rated horror flick based on real events, a NYC police officer (Bana) joins forces with an unconventional priest (Ramirez) to investigate a series of possessions that are terrorizing the city. Granted, the flick boasts some decent hair-raisers, but it’s nothing audiences haven’t seen in countless other big screen ghost stories. What makes the movie compelling is its urban hook. Yes, we’ve seen investigators tracking down the demonized Evil that men do, but the investigators are rarely cops and usually in isolated houses. Plus, you throw in a hard-drinking roughneck man of god and moviegoers are sold American … only these elements never deliver on their promise. Flashlights going dark. Cats jumping out. Deranged ladies acting creepy. This horror flick manages to check off just about every cliché box afforded this genre. Thankfully, a couple of ace performances and some atmospheric direction scare up the entertainment factor a bit. Even when a project’s not worthy of his talent (Deadfall, Closed Circuit), Eric Bana elevates the material a notch just through shear watchability. Despite cutting his teeth as a comedian, he always gives great seemingly effortless turns, whether it’s a hard-hitting drama (Munich) or popcorn blockbuster (Star Trek). Likewise, Edgar Ramirez (Che: Part 1 and 2, Zero Dark Thirty) is scary good — literally scary. Like an exposed live wire, you want to keep your distance but also keep your eyes directly on him at all times. Despite demonstrating a knack for helming great edge-of-your-seat moments (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister), director Scott Derrickson’s script for Deliver Us from Evil doesn’t show much bite because it’s loaded with recycled spine tinglers. Hopefully, he brings his A-Game to the hotly anticipated franchise to which he’s just been attached: Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange.

The Rover
Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson
****1/2 — Beyond Thunderstruck
Making the bullet-ridden, dust deviled, brains splattered western The Proposition look like the Australian equivalent of a plucky Disney princess story, The Rover presents a palpable vengeance tale badder than the actual badlands. And yes, bad means good for filmgoers. In this R-rated crime-drama set in a near futuristic wasteland, a hardened loner on a dangerous journey forms an uneasy bond with the brother (Pattinson) of one of the thieves (Scoot McNairy) he’s pursuing to kill. This is not to say that The Proposition charts anywhere near bad film territory. In fact, it is a blisteringly visceral re-examining of identity, allegiance and justice told with a revisionist’s style. The same could be said of The Rover, only principles and scruples often blur and disappear in this film’s Dystopian horizon more readily, unlike its forebear. The film beats with humanity and the brilliant ending displays great heart … albeit heart held in a clenched fist. Guy Pierce brilliantly conveys the menace, weight and dread of a grizzled victim pushed over the edge.

 

Small Screens

Hell on Wheels: Season Three (2013)
Anson Mount, Colm Meaney
***1/2 — Hells-a-Poppin’
In the third season of this AMC TV western (coming to DVD this Tuesday), Cullen Bohannon (Mount) abandons avenging his wife’s murder in order to continue driving the westward expansion of the Union Pacific Railroad, while battling Thomas “Doc” Durant (Meaney) for control. HBO’s Deadwood ranks among this reviewer’s top five television series of all time which, admittedly, makes any serialized western a hard act to follow. Hell on Wheels never comes close to the brilliant meta-Shakespearean narrative of David Milch’s landmark, but remains an entertaining also-ran. Here, after season one course-corrected following a rocky start and season two literally went out with a rousing bang, round three dusts off any weak strands and powers forward in a compelling new direction right from the get-go. Sure, a new love interest gets gratuitously shoehorned in and the Mormons replace Native-Americans as the obligatory antagonists (understandably antagonistic given that the railroad impedes upon their lands), but the characters get to go to some fascinating places. Mount’s Bohannon makes an even greater anti-hero now that he’s become a ‘father’ while slow-burning fuse slave-turned-lawman Elam (rapper Common, in an ace performance) exudes powder keg unpredictability. Over 10 episodes, the writing starts out strong, but becomes melodramatic and over-reaches its grasp by the finale. Still, there’s enough loco-motion for at least one more season, which begins an expanded 13 episode run on Aug. 2.

Screens: July 3, 2014

Screens: July 3, 2014

OPENING THIS WEEK

Tammy
Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon
As reported in a Variety cover story last week, comedienne Melissa McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone have six projects lined up for production the near future. Through their company, On the Day, they’re putting together an adaptation of the Ron McLarty novel Memory of Running, a big-screen update of her satirical LA Groundlings character Michelle Darnell, a starring role in the Paul Feig comedy Spy, a continued collaboration with that same director in the sex romp Just Do It and a showing of her serious side in Cousin Irv. First, however, comes Tammy, which Falcone co-wrote with McCarthy, as well as directed. In this R-rated comedy, a woman (McCarthy) hits the road with her profane, hard-drinking grandmother (Sarandon) after getting fired and catching her husband two-timing.
The Plus: The players. After the success of Bridesmaids, Identity Thief and The Heat on the big screen and CBS’s Mike and Molly on the small screen, McCarthy is on a bit of a roll. Here, Falcone (actor, Enough Said and Bad Words) also directs Sarandon (The Big Wedding), Dan Aykroyd (HBO’s Behind the Candelabra), Mark Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed), Kathy Bates (FX’s American Horror Story), Allison Janney (Showtime’s Masters of Sex), Gary Cole (HBO’s Veep), Toni Collette (Hitchcock), Nat Faxon (The Way Way Back) and Sandra Oh (ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy).
The Minus: The odds. With so many kettles on the boil, there runs the risk of McCarthy putting out quantity over quality.

 
EC03SCREENS_5_WEBDeliver Us from Evil
Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez
With this particular thriller, all eyes are on the director. A veteran of two blockbusting hair-raisers (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister), Scott Derrickson recently got offered the keys to a hotly anticipated franchise: Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange. In this R-rated horror flick, a NYC police officer (Bana) joins forces with an unconventional priest (Ramirez) to investigate a series of possessions that are terrorizing the city.
The Plus: The genre. Horror flicks have a knack for becoming surprise summer hits. Last July, The Conjuring scared up over $318 million worldwide. Deliver Us from Evil stars Bana (Hanna, Lone Survivor), Ramirez (Zero Dark Thirty, The Counselor) and Olivia Munn (Magic Mike, HBO’s The Newsroom).
The Minus: The odds. One weekend, two new R-rated features. There’s not room enough for both of them in an already crowded box office.
 
 

NOW PLAYING

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Jersey Boys
John Lloyd Young, Christopher Walken
**1/2 — Cease is the Word
Inspiring more knuckle rapping than toe tapping, Clint Eastwood somehow manages to take a beloved Broadway hit and turn it into a melancholic, brokedown jukebox musical miss. In the R-rated musical biography Jersey Boys, Eastwood presents the true story of four young men from New Jersey (Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza) who formed the iconic 1960s rock group The Four Seasons to escape a mobbed up past on the wrong side of the tracks. It’s not as if Eastwood doesn’t understand what makes a musical tick. He just doesn’t seem to understand what makes this particular musical — a smash that won four Tony Awards (including Best Musical), mounted two North American tours and sold out shows all over the world — tick. Jersey Boys boasts a look and narrative voice that feels reminiscent of Martin Scorsese with its themes of guilt, redemption and machismo set in a dark and violent world that’s occasionally soundtracked by popular music. Jerzy Kosinki Boys may’ve been a better title. Indeed, Eastwood’s 32nd feature film as director proves more moody and broody than his last decent flick, Changeling … and yes, that particular piece of LA Noir centered around a serial child killer.
 
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The Rover
Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson
****1/2 – Beyond Thunderstruck
Making the bullet-ridden, dust deviled, brains splattered western The Proposition look like the Australian equivalent of a plucky Disney princess story, The Rover presents a palpable vengeance tale badder than the actual Badlands. And yes, bad means good for filmgoers. In this R-rated crime-drama set in a near futuristic wasteland, a hardened loner on a dangerous journey forms an uneasy bond with the brother (Pattinson) of one of the thieves (Scoot McNairy) he’s pursuing to kill. This is not to say that The Proposition charts anywhere near bad film territory. In fact, it is a blisteringly visceral re-examining of identity, allegiance and justice told with a revisionist’s style. The same could be said of The Rover, only principles and scruples often blur and disappear in this film’s dystopian horizon more readily, unlike its forebear. People often compare away authentic-seeming complex narratives that are beautifully shot as being indicative of the ’70s. While The Rover’s bleak humanity is every bit as uncompromising as the lost frontiers of The Wild Bunch and Apocalypse Now, its collapsed world economy setting makes it, perhaps, as timely as those particular Vietnam tales. Still, the film DOES beat with humanity and the brilliant ending displays great heart … albeit heart held in a clenched fist. Forget The Expendables, Liam Neeson or any other “action hero” who goes through the ham fisted theatrics of playing a one-man war machine on screen. Unlike these over flexed bulls, you truly fear the titular character here and believe his every double barrel conviction. Guy Pierce actually conveys the menace, weight and dread of a grizzled victim pushed over the edge. Of course, he does. When producers need an ace card in anticipation of awards season, they needn’t look any further than Guy Pearce. In modern classic (LA Confidential) after modern classic (The Hurt Locker) after modern classic (The King’s Speech), this actor’s participation in a film has been something of a lucky rabbit’s foot even if an Oscar win has eluded the actor himself. Here, he reunites with Animal Kingdom director David Michod, who one-ups his previous triumph with a narrative that stumbles once or twice (hence the half star keeping it from 5), but is damn close to perfect. Also, Robert Pattinson needn’t worry about shaking off The Twilight Saga … cause he just did it here with an awesomely sympathetic turn.

 
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz
** — Daft of the Moon
Transmogrifying from a potentially cool blockbuster into an overlong muddled mess in five easy feces, this fourth live action big-screen go-round for the Hasbro toy can’t even manage to break even for eager moviegoers. It only nearly breaks even, mind you, because of the weapons grade CGI, special effects and sound effects. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi actioner, an automobile mechanic/inventor (Wahlberg) and his daughter (Peltz) make a discovery that draws the warring Autobots and Decepticons — and a paranoid government official (Kelsey Grammar) — in on them. About halfway through the action, the story loses you … not because it’s overly complex like Pi or, say, Back to the Future II, but because the script just ceases to matter in a deluge of quips and explosions. Funny enough, it starts out with great promise, slow building a streamlined down home, weird science conspiracy take into a overly bombastic TV mini-series length product placement crap-travaganza. The length, of course, seals the deal. Clocking in at nearly three hours, Age of Extinction feels like it lasts longer than the same childhood in which you actually made up better stories while you played with Transformers. Robot uprisings. Alien combatants. Nebulous baloney. Whatever you call them, the presence of the Transformers negates any importance on the part of a cast. Strangely, Mark Wahlberg performs limited action hero duties in this sure-to-be blockbuster, but he readily checks off the boxes for put-upon human Autobot ally: bland ambition. Based on the age of latest female protagonist Nicola Peltz (17-18 at time of filming) in lieu of previous spunky damsels Megan Fox (20) and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (23), the title Transformers: Age of Consent may’ve been the more appropriate title. Thankfully, the SFX and sound design bare some impressive teeth, which is a welcome relief considering that two movies ago, the CGI rendering moved so fast that you couldn’t see the Transformers, well, transform in any great detail.

 

SMALL SCREENS


EC03SCREENS_1_WEBThe Deviants (2014)
Nick Stavrides, Matthew Myers
***1/2 — Mondo Brasho
In this unrated comedy available on Amazon this coming Tuesday, six blissfully reckless friends come together for a lost weekend wedding reunion of drinking, bowling and fighting, but end up getting a cold dose of reality as well. Admittedly, this reviewer is a friend of John Mikulak. That didn’t get the director/co-writer a pass, however. In this column, criticism always falls strictest and harshest on associates. The Deviants came as a welcome surprise though. Originally shot in 1994 by a group of NYU Film School alum in the Luzerne County and McAdoo areas, The Deviants marked the feature debut of Mikulak (the director who would go to make the outstanding funny-but-true documentary The Man Who Would be Polka King), only its release got mired in red tape … until now. Unapologetically sophomoric and campy, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek and black humor in full effect, The Deviants excellently presents characters having quarter-life crises as if they had been documented by John Waters. Made amid the 90s independent film wave, The Deviants is a free-wheeling and madcap time capsule that’s just now being opened, playing out with more edge, coolness and skill than most of the fluff Kevin Smith tried to pawn off as juvenile comedy (Ah, Mallrats! Ah, humanity!). Always fun, rarely serious and oftentimes reverential and parodic of homecoming flicks in one fell swoop, The Deviants more than holds its own among the Sundance Generation.

Screens

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Transformers: Age of Extinction
Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz
Okay, there’s an elephant in the room. True, Mark Wahlberg began his career as Marky Mark, lead rapper of the Funky Bunch. That’s ancient history, however. Since then, he’s earned the right to lose the Marky after generating a lot of good vibrations in H’Wood (Boogie Nights, The Perfect Storm, Italian Job, Invincible, The Departed, The Fighter, Ted), which is why we must indulge detours like the current A&E reality series The Wahlburgers, which chronicles the struggles of his brother Paul’s hamburger chain. Before Wahlberg puts in a cameo in the Entourage movie (he produced the hit HBO series), he’s starring in the latest Transformers flick. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi actioner, an automobile mechanic/inventor (Wahlberg) and his daughter (Peltz) make a discovery that draws the warring Autobots and Decepticons — and a paranoid government official (Kelsey Grammar) — in on them. The Plus: The players. Giving Wahlberg (Ted) the starring role in this franchise is a potential win-win. He needs a hit after a spotty run (Contraband, Broken City, Pain & Gain, Lone Survivor) and this franchise needs to establish itself away from the critically-derided chapters starring Shia LaBeouf. Here, Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Armageddon) also directs Peltz (A&E’s Bates Motel), Jack Reynor (Delivery Man), Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), Sophia Myles (Outlander), Grammer (Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return) and Titus Welliver (ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). The Minus: Burnout. After three noisy, explosive, CGI-crammed flicks, how many moviegoers are still primed for more transforming robots? Paramount and Hasbro (which makes the on which Transformers is based) hopes $165 million worth, as that’s this flick’s estimated budget.

Coming soon

Snowpiercer
Chris Evans, Jamie Bell
Even though the name Snowpiercer isn’t exactly as well known as Batman, The X-Men, or even, say, Jonah Hex, it does ring a bell for fans of this sub-genre. It’s based on the graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette. In this R-rated sci-fi thriller set in a future where a failed global-warming experiment kickstarts the next Ice Age, a combustible class system evolves on a train that travels around the globe non-stop. The Plus: The players. Here, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho works from his own screenplay adaptation (co-written by Kelly Masterson) and helms a cast that includes once and future Captain America Evans (The Avengers), Bell (Man on a Ledge), Kang-ho Song (The Good, the Bad and the Weird), Tilda Swinton (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Ed Harris (Pain & Gain), John Hurt (BBC’s Doctor Who), Octavia Spencer (The Help), Ewan Bremmer (Jack the Giant Slayer) and Alison Pill (HBO’s The Newsroom). The Minus: The scuttle. Reportedly, Weinstein Company took his scissors to Joon-ho’s cut and compromised the writer/director’s artistic vision. With a reported budget of $39 million and a producer notorious for making such cuts, this drama doesn’t sound all that unlikely but does create bad buzz for this high concept actioner.

 

Now Playing

Jersey Boys  John Lloyd Young, Christopher Walken    **1/2 — Cease is the Word
Inspiring more brow furling than toe tapping, Clint Eastwood somehow manages to take a beloved Broadway hit and turn it into a melancholic, brokedown jukebox musical miss. In the R-rated musical biography Jersey Boys, Eastwood presents the true story of four young men from New Jersey (Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza) who formed the iconic 1960s rock group The Four Seasons to escape a mobbed up past on the wrong side of the tracks. It’s not as if Eastwood doesn’t understand what makes a musical tick. He’s directed several music-themed dramas (Play Misty For Me, Bird), composed the score for several more (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby) and even sung a tune or two on film himself (Paint Your Wagon, Honkytonk Man). He just doesn’t seem to understand what makes this particular musical — a smash that won four Tony Awards (including Best Musical), mounted two North American tours and sold out shows all over the world — tick. Jersey Boys boasts a look and narrative voice that feels reminiscent of Martin Scorsese with its themes of guilt, redemption and machismo set in a dark and violent world that’s occasionally soundtracked by popular music. Jerzy Kosinki Boys may have been a better title. Indeed, Eastwood’s 32nd feature film as director proves more moody and broody than his last decent flick, Changeling … and yes, that particular piece of LA Noir centered around a serial child killer. Oh, the film is well shot, mind you. And yes, there was a lot of infighting and underworld activity associated with the development of this landmark act. Such drama should remain behind the music, however, hence the genre. Wearing the label “musical” implies that a film is going to possess a certain energy that naturally comes along with singing and instrument playing. Perhaps, like the characters in the story, this flick just tires itself out with all of the incessant arguing. When the soundtrack kicks in, it comes as a welcome reprieve from monotonous melodrama. Indeed, hearing such Four Seasons chart toppers as “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Sherry,” “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night),” “My Eyes Adored You,” “Stay” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” offers relief from the stagnant script. What’s truly a pity is that the phenomenal cast (especially John Lloyd Young, who reprises his Tony Award-winning role as Frankie Valli) seemed game for a good sing-along, too.

Think Like a Man Too
Kevin Hart, Gabrielle Union
*1/2 — Think Like a Yawn
In taking the dysfunctional couplings from Think Like a Man and giving them a Vegas Vacation, this deuce doesn’t exactly earn points for originality, but it’s contrived storytelling certainly wins an award for banality. In this PG-13-rated comedy sequel, all the couples are back for a wedding in Las Vegas, but plans for a romantic weekend go awry when their various misadventures get them into some compromising situations that threaten to derail the big event. Steve Harvey didn’t write a sequel to his bestselling relationship advice book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, mind you. Screen Gems just took it upon itself to capitalize on a certain 2012 surprise hit, which apparently involves pitting their continued romantic hijinks in — wait for it … as if it’s never been done before — in Sin City. That’s right, the characters that laudably, but improbably eked out an enjoyable first go-round, take things to the world’s most famous adult playground for a bachelor party. Oh, what misadventures they get in! Suite parties. Strip clubs. Heavy drinking. Characters not developing. Wait, what?! That’s right, the loves and losses unfurled in the first flick apparently didn’t teach this bunch any life lessons. They’re stuck in second gear and down shifting. If a third movie rears its head (Think Like a Man Too Bad), these characters might just revert to infancy rather than actually detail the highs and lows of monogamy in the spirit of the book. Any resemblance between this amazing cast and an awesome story is purely inaccessible. All involved stand and deliver to the best of their ability, especially Kevin Hart, a white-hot star to whom most of this broken-down wagon gets hitched to. Like a bad night at the casino tables, the script is just a bust. Oh, it’s funny in parts, but there is no Las Vegas comedy cliche too insignificant for screenwriters Keith Merryman and David A. Newman to ignore. Certain audiences and film industry professionals decry the lack of movies centered around the African-American demographic, but is this what it’s come to? Churning out recycled plots with tired gags and just adding in an African-American cast to act their way out of a steaming pile of H’Wood poo? The cast deserves better. African-American moviegoers deserve better. Frankly, we all do.

22 Jump Street
Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill
*** — The Booker Thief
Following up an unlikely hit laugh-riot with a joke-stuffed sequel that almost makes you want to put on your laugh-riot grrrrr, 22 Jump Street equals bust in blackjack terms but somehow breaks even for moviegoers looking for some raunchy guffaws. In this R-rated comedy, former high school undercover officers Schmidt and Jenko (Hall, Tatum) go deep undercover at a local college. Throughout this flick, blurbs get dropped regarding the sophomoric slump that usually follows a second helping. Well, just because you wink at the audience in reference to your inadequacies doesn’t make you any less inadequate. Several literal laugh-out-loud moments rise to the top of this warmed over plate of leftovers (indeed, it’s the same story as in 21 Jump Street, just with Tatum and Hill’s sadsack-hero roles reversed and strung out over collegiate and spring break settings). It quickly becomes apparent — with its sequel one-liners laid on so thick as if to say it’s truly a joke that their misadventures even got a second go-round — that 22’s still welcome company, but 23 will prove an unwanted crowd on your time if the series is allowed to keep going.

 

Small Screens

The Raid: Redemption
Iko Uwais, Ananda George
**** — Block Rocking Beast
Before The Raid 2 brawls, ahem, bows on DVD on July 8th, get your fight up for the propulsive Part one. In this R-rated adrenaline-laced piece of popcorn, an Indonesian S.W.A.T. team becomes trapped in a tenement run by a ruthless mobster and his army of murderous thugs. Stripped, blood-stained and eye peeling, The Raid does for action what Iron Man and The Dark Knight did for the comic book movie in 2008 — gives the genre a much needed shot of cool in the arm. Oh, it doesn’t completely reinvent the wheel. In the wake of recycled 80s action porn like The Expendables and A Good Day to Die Hard, however, The Raid offers an unapologetically straight-ahead kill-or-be-killed story that you’ve kinda sorta seen before and somehow makes it seem brand spanking new. In fact, when this breakneck flick stops to catch its breath and – gasp – forward the story, it feels like the script stepped in molasses. What brought Welshman Gareth Evans (V/H/S/ 2) to Indonesia? Who knows? Maybe he fell in love with Asian shoot-‘em-ups as a kid. Regardless, Redemption marks a hard-charging feature debut exploding with style.

 

 

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Jersey Boys
John Lloyd Young, Christopher Walken
Though Clint Eastwood hinted that 2012’s Trouble with the Curve would be his acting swan song (hell, he also said the same thing about 2008’s Gran Torino), the 84-year-old H’Wood legend shows no signs of actually letting the fat lady sing. He’s directed several music-themed dramas (Play Misty For Me, Bird), composed the score for several more (Mystic River, Changeling) and even sung a tune or two on film himself (Paint Your Wagon, Honkytonk Man). His 32nd feature film as director, however, marks his first out-and-out musical. In the R-rated musical biography Jersey Boys, Eastwood presents the true story of four young men from New Jersey (Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza) who formed the iconic 1960s rock group The Four Seasons to escape a mobbed up past on the wrong side of the tracks. The Plus: The material. Since opening in 2005, this smash Broadway jukebox musical won four Tony Awards (including Best Musical), mounted two North American tours and sold out shows all over the world. In addition to direction by Oscar-winner Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby), this adaptation smartly boasts original playwrights Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice on screenwriting duties, Tony winner (and originator of the role on Broadway) John Lloyd Young as music legend Frankie Valli and — lest we forget — a soundtrack that includes such Four Seasons chart toppers as “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Sherry,” “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night),” “My Eyes Adored You,” “Stay,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and more. The Minus: The odds. Eastwood’s last three films, Invictus, Hereafter and J. Edgar, didn’t fare well come Oscar time or at the box office.

 

Think Like a Man Too
Kevin Hart, Gabrielle Union
Though comedian and Family Feud host Steve Harvey never penned a sequel to his 2009 book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, this hasn’t stopped H’Wood from churning out part deux. In this PG-13-rated sequel to the 2012 hit comedy Think Like a Man, all the couples are back for a wedding in Las Vegas, but plans for a romantic weekend go awry when their various misadventures get them into some compromising situations that threaten to derail the big event. The Plus: The players. When the first flick opened, comedian Hart wasn’t much of a draw. Now, however, having busted out in the smash hit Ride Along and well received stand-up flick Let Me Explain, he’s a marquee selling point. Here, returning director Tim Story (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer) has assembled a cast that includes Hart (Grudge Match), Union (ABC’s FlashForward), Ealy (Fox’s Almost Human), Wendi McLendon-Covey (ABC’s The Goldbergs), Meagan Good (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), Regina Hall (About Last Night), Jerry Ferrara (Last Vegas) and Taraji P. Henson (CBS’s Person of Interest). The Minus: The competition. One weekend, two new movies, an already crowded box office … even though this flick aims for a specific demographic, it faces a lot of other contenders this weekend.

 

Now Playing

22 Jump Street
Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill
*** — The Booker Thief
Following up an unlikely hit laugh-riot with a joke-stuffed sequel that almost makes you want to put on your laugh-riot grrrrr, 22 Jump Street equals bust in blackjack terms but somehow breaks even for moviegoers looking for some raunchy guffaws. In this R-rated comedy, former high school undercover officers Schmidt and Jenko (Hall, Tatum) go deep undercover at a local college. Throughout this flick, blurbs get dropped regarding the sophomoric slump that usually follows a second helping. Well, just because you wink at the audience in reference to your inadequacies doesn’t make you any less inadequate. Several literal laugh-out-loud moments rise to the top of this warmed-over plate of leftovers (indeed, it’s the same story as in 21 Jump Street, just with Tatum and Hill’s sadsack-hero roles reversed and strung out over collegiate and spring break settings). Still, the thin premise remains a shotglass as opposed to keg when it comes to how much of an engaging plot it truly holds. Granted, you don’t need much story when you have decent gags. To its credit, 22 Jump Street puts forth several hilarious moments but it quickly becomes apparent — with its sequel one-liners laid on so thick as if to say it’s truly a joke that their misadventures even got a second go-round — that 2’s still welcome company, but 3 will prove a an unwanted crowd on your time if the series is allowed to keep going. There’s even a series of humorous tagged-on codas over the end credits that jokes about how ridiculous the prospects of continuing the franchise would be (Medical School?, Correspondence School?!). But once again, winking at how tedious something is fast becoming doesn’t make it any less of a drain on your time. Thankfully, Tatum and Hill present a hilariously heartfelt bromance that’s not unlike some classic comedy team back-and-forths (Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, etc.). Also, when you consider that co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller also churned out the ridiculously entertaining Lego Movie this year, the likability of 22 Jump Street becomes that much more impressive. Just don’t push it, guys.

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Voices of Jay Baruchel, Kristen Wiig
***1/2 — Your Ace is a Dragon
Building on an inventive but predictable introduction, Dreamworks Animation gives moviegoers not so much an all-out Viking conquest as a decadently Valhallan stellar second act brimming with enough humor, creativity and adventure to warrant a curtain closer. In this PG-rated animated sequel, Viking Hiccup (Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless must unite to stand up for what they believe while recognizing that only together do they have the power to change the future of both men and winged fire-breathing lizards. An old adage tells us that devil is in the details. If this is the case, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a hotbed for demonologists. So much thought and precision goes into the design of the characters and their craftwork that the audience can’t help but get swept into this dragon tale. As with all sequels, the ante gets raised by adding more humor, heart, action, players, gadgets, derring-do and more, well, everything. This follow-up nonetheless manages to meld all of this excess into an engaging story that just about reaches the rarefied heights of the raised stakes. All of the marquee pipes from the first flick manage to breathe even more fire than the first time around. The new components (including Cate Blanchett as Hiccup’s mother) make for even more of a ridiculously fun outing, but it’s writer/director Dean DuBlois (working off of the book series by Cressida Cowell) who truly rues your day. His dragon riders unfurl detailed widgets and dragon breeds of such animal hybrid specificity that you can’t help but stare slack-jawed in pure wonderment. And all the while, the whipsmart story keeps flying you along at a rousing clip. As with the first chapter, we’re working with a bit of formula here, but it’s a proven recipe that works so long as you have some bite. Thankfully, this go-round boasts a Dragon-sized bite.

 

Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt
**** — Stuck in High Gear
Edging dangerously close to pure excellence, this brilliant, time looping, Tomorrow-set, sci-fi tale quickly establishes itself among the genre’s best. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi-actioner based on the graphic novel All You Need is Kill, a soldier (Cruise) fighting in a war with aliens finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, dying each time until he can find the way to beat his enemy. Call it Groundhog Day as envisioned by Phillip K. Dick. Call it whatever it takes for you to stop pigeonholing Edge of Tomorrow instead of just seeing it and realizing you can’t cast aside this unique and often humorous thinking man’s thrill ride as a one-off pop culture comparison. The film boasts a gritty verve-filled look that sets the stage for a clever and entirely fresh Twilight Zoned premise that pays off over and over and over … well, you get the point. Also, enough talk of not seeing movies starring Tom Cruise because you dislike the actor. If you can’t mentally separate this man’s personal life from his ridiculously impressive CV than you have far greater problems than biased moviegoing.

The Fault in Our Stars
Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort
**** — Ill Commemoration
Tear soaked, infectiously charming and exceedingly well played, a certain best selling love story plays out beautifully on screen, even when it occasionally comes off as slightly feverish from a malady called formula. In this PG-13-rated romance based on John Green’s bestselling novel, two cancer-battling teenagers (Woodley, Elgort) meet, share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional and a love that sweeps pits them on an unforgettable journey. Even Shakespeare, from whom author John Green borrowed his title, worked from a blueprint for his comedies and tragedies. Even when Green’s tome plays out beat for H’Wood beat on film, however, it still evinces the best qualities of both comedy and tragedy. Even when predictably pulling our strings a bit, the story serves as a sincere feel good antidote to the modern popcorn blockbuster. If moviegoers can’t fall into tune with the strains of this, one of the most uplifting romances in recent screen history, then the fault lies in ourselves as a too-cynical culture, dear Brutus.

 

Small Screens

A Hard Day’s Night
John Lennon, Paul McCartney
****1/2 — Great Enough to Watch 8 Days a Week
In the Criterion Blu-Ray/DVD combo-pack release of the Beatles 1964 film debut, available for purchase on Tuesday, director Richard Lester captures a, ahem, “typical” day in the life of the world’s greatest rock band at the height of Beatlemania. Call it a pseudo documentary. Call it a musical comedy. Call it the umpteenth home video cash-in of this particular title. Regardless, A Hard Day’s Night ends up to be a series of fortunate events for both fans of the band and fans of anarchic comedy in the style of the Marx Brothers. What’s remarkable is that Lester, who takes to some remarkable handheld framing with his fly-on-the-wall shooting style, turns out a slapstick sing-a-long that owes as much to Jean-Luc Godard as Groucho’s favorite director, Leo McCarey. Most importantly, in an era when it’s nearly impossible to latch onto one face or personality in the rock bands that have sprung to popularity over the last 2-3 years, this film evinces four distinct players who each shine with enough charm and wit to fuel the slapdash goings-on in the madcap kinda-sorta parody of their own early success. Loaded with too many extras to list here, this “director approved” version is the perfect way to celebrate 50 years of an unlikely film classic.

Screens

Screens

Opening this weekend

 

22 Jump Street
Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill
Blame Step Up. Since hoofing it in that star-crossed dancers-in-love flick, Channing Tatum’s star has been on the rise mostly thanks to sitting out Step Up 2 through 5, the forthcoming All In. Since banking two of the biggest hits of 2012 (The Vow, 21 Jump Street), however, Tatum’s star has continued to burn white hot (Magic Mike, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, White House Down). In 2015, he’ll put another notch on his H’Wood belt with the sequel Magic Mike XXL … after this sequel, that is. In this R-rated comedy, former high school undercover officers Schmidt and Jenko (Hall, Tatum) go deep undercover at a local college. The Plus: The players. Here, Tatum (Side Effects) joins Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), Ice Cube (Ride Along), Dave Franco (Neighbors), Nick Offerman (We’re the Millers), Ron Riggle (The Internship), Peter Stormare (Pain & Gain) and Richard Grieco (A Night at the Roxbury) again under the direction of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The LEGO Movie). The Minus: Sophomore slump. Expectations weren’t very high for 21 Jump Street, an adaptation of the popular ‘90s FOX cop drama … which is why critics were shocked and praised it when it actually turned out to be quite funny. Capturing lightning in a bottle twice is tough enough, especially since this outing doesn’t have one of the previous flick’s most winningest aces up its sleeve: a cameo by former Jump Street star Johnny Depp.

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Voices of Jay Baruchel, Kristen Wiig
Pixar isn’t the only game in town when it comes to blockbuster computer animation. With the gi-normous back-to-back-to-back-to-back success of Kung Fu Panda 2, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, Rise of the Guardians and the Croods, DreamWorks Animation capped off an already impressive roster that also includes the blockbuster Shrek franchise (add Shrek spinoff Puss in Boots to that list above). Next up is Kung Fu Panda 3 … after How to Train Your Dragon 2, that is. In this PG-rated animated sequel, Viking Hiccup (Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless must unite to stand up for what they believe while recognizing that only together do they have the power to change the future of both men and winged fire-breathing lizards. The Plus: The players. From writing to celebrity voices, this animation division always assembles an impressive roster of talent. This flick boasts the A-List pipes of Baruchel (This is the End), Wiig (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), Gerard Butler (Olympus Has Fallen), Cate Blanchett (The Monuments Men), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), America Ferrera (End of Watch), Kit Harrington (Pompeii), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Neighbors), Craig Ferguson (CBS’s The Late Late Show) and Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond). The Minus: The odds. Already positioned as the keystone in a Dragon trilogy, this sequel has a lot riding on it so the quality had better be good … especially considering DreamWorks’ last animated flick, Turbo, proved to be a snail so far as industry expectations.

 

Now playing

Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt
****— Stuck in High Gear
Edging dangerously close to pure excellence, this brilliant, time looping, Tomorrow-set, sci-fi tale quickly establishes itself among the genre’s best. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi-actioner based on the graphic novel All You Need is Kill, a soldier (Cruise) fighting in a war with aliens finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, dying each time until he can find the way to beat his enemy. Call it Groundhog Day as envisioned by Phillip K. Dick. Call it whatever it takes for you to stop pigeonholing Edge of Tomorrow instead of just seeing it and realizing you can’t compare away this unique thinking man’s thrill ride. The film boasts a gritty verve-filled look that sets the stage for a clever and entirely fresh Twilight Zoned premise that pays off over and over and over … well, you get the point. Enough talk of not seeing movies starring Tom Cruise because you dislike the actor. If you can’t mentally separate this man’s personal life from his work than you have far greater problems than biased moviegoing. Amid his ridiculously impressive CV, there sits an underrated gem that sports a wholly unique futuristic story masquerading as noir. It’s called Minority Report and as good as it is, this Tomorrow tale takes a slight edge. Here, he’s not playing his often typical hero self. Rather, his actions often prove deplorable … but only because he sells it so well. Emily Blunt, on the other hand, moves against type and gives audiences one of the strongest female soldiers on the never-level playing field of the sexes. Under the direction of Doug Liman (no matter what anybody says, his edgy template on Bourne Identity allowed Paul Greengrass to run free with shaky handheld on Supremacy and Ultimatum), the narrative of Christopher McQuarrie’s excellently nuanced screenplay takes hold because the setting’s already completely sold and established … again and again and again.

The Fault in Our Stars
Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort
**** — Ill Commemoration
Tear-soaked, infectiously charming and exceedingly well played, a certain best selling love story plays out beautifully on-screen even when it occasionally comes off as slightly feverish from a malady called formula. In this PG-13-rated romance based on John Green’s bestselling novel, two cancer-battling teenagers (Woodley, Elgort) meet, share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional and a love that sweeps pits them on an unforgettable journey. This is not to say that The Fault in Our Stars is entirely colored by numbers. Hell, even Shakespeare, from whom author John Green borrowed his title, worked from a blueprint for his comedies and tragedies. Even when Green’s tome plays out beat for H’Wood beat on film, it still evinces the best qualities of both comedy and tragedy. Even when predictably pulling our strings a bit, the story serves as a feel good antidote to the modern popcorn blockbuster that feels entirely sincere. If moviegoers can’t fall into tune with the strains of this, one of the most uplifting romances in recent screen history, than the fault lies in ourselves as a too-cynical culture, dear Brutus. Shailene Woodley’s heart-wrenching and heart-tugging turn elicits such an emotional response from the audience that — days later — you’ll sit and wonder how the quite healthy actress is feeling. It takes two to tango, however and Ansel Elgort’s stricken ying to her yang plays out beautifully,even when the adverb of the moment is sadly. True, sometimes his philosophizing do-gooder across as annoying but much of that stems from the character — not the performance. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are fast making great names for themselves after crafting three ace romances in a very pessimistic age (the pair also worked on 500 Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now). Even in the moments touched by Screenwriting 101’s often heavy hand, their screenplay works quite brilliantly. Likewise, director Josh Boone paints a hauntingly pretty picture.

Maleficent
Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning
**1/2 — Schlepping Beauty
Magically dreamt up, but humanly flawed, this modern Disneyfication of Sleeping Beauty stirs up some beguilingly clever witchcraft … but it sits in a cauldron nonetheless. It’s a dark tale, yes, but one that happens to be family friendly. In this PG-rated fantasy adventure, a vindictive fairy (Jolie) is driven to curse an infant princess only to realize the child (Fanning), as she grows up, may be the only one who can restore peace to the kingdom. It’s a dark tale, yes, but one that happens to be family friendly … too much so. It lacks much of the edge and verve of, say, the revisionist Snow White and the Huntsmen. Entertaining, but not nearly as inventive, Maleficent also trades live action Magik for computer-generated trickery that’s doesn’t quite cast a complete spell. It’s worth seeing if not just for Jolie’s impossibly sympathetic turn, but what price, story? Though we’ve become distant cynical in our post-9/11 accelerated culture, a lot of moviegoers still crave a solid fairy lively told. This attempt doesn’t reach magnificence but it’s a valiant attempt. Please try again.

A Million Ways to Die in the West
Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron
** — Blazing Saddlesores
Riding the range with a million gags and what feels like a million minutes, Seth MacFarlane’s overlong latest comedy nevertheless wants for a million laughs. Actually, we’d gratefully settle for a solid 20. In this R-rated comedy, a cowardly sheep farmer (MacFarlane) begins to fall for the mysterious new woman in town (Theron), so he puts his new-found courage to the test against her husband, a notorious gun-slinger (Liam Neeson). This is not to say that the flick plays out with the tear-soaked heaviness of John Ford’s ultimate cowboy drama The Searchers. In fact, this sometime genre spoof doles out some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Unfortunately, most of the rest are sophomoric (sometimes literal) hat-fulls of excrement. The problem is, to use a Western analogy, they’re spread out through the streets of a dusty frontier town amid piles of manure. Plus, it’s not an outright spoof. It’s a comedy set in the West that occasionally happens to wink at Zeitgeist-dwelling moviegoers … for better and worse.

 

Small Screens

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham
****1/2 — Plaza Sweet
In this R-rated comedy coming to DVD this Tuesday, Wes Anderson presents the adventures of Gustave H (Fiennes), a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel in a war-torn European nation and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend. Like a Bottle Rocket off of Rushmore into Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s Royal, Fantastic and — yes — Grand latest takes up residence in your mind’s eye with nary of the Limited waterlogged whimsy of The Life Aquatic. In fact, it’s his masterwork … thus far. Here Anderson’s not just pulling the strings on a curriculum, family tree or scout troop of his own design, the writer/director integrates filmgoers seamlessly into a decades-spanning multi-layered story set in a completely credible fictitious nation. Anderson’s charming verve, meticulously planned aesthetics and vintage-sounding wordsmithing work best when he keeps at least one of your feet on the ground even when he’s already stuck your head in the clouds. That’s the beauty of this particular check-in, however. Even the most fantastical moments (and there are many) somehow feel lived-in and rooted in some kind of nostalgic familiarity.

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Opening this week

 

Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt
The 21st century didn’t start out so well for the biggest movie star in the world. After Tom Cruise’s headline-grabbing departure (ahem, firing) from Paramount in 2006 after 14 years, the actor began an unsuccessful tenure as the new head of United Artists (Lions for Lambs, Valkyrie). With the gi-normous success of 2012’s Mission: Impossible  — Ghost Protocol, however, Cruise again cemented his star in H’Wood and got the sequel greenlit for 2015. Now comes his latest, a project based on a graphic novel called All You Need is Kill. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi-actioner, a soldier (Cruise) fighting in a war with aliens finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, dying each time until, he can find the way to beat his enemy. The Plus: The players. The Cruise name can still equal box office gold if Protocol’s $750 million dollar worldwide take has anything to say about it. Just in case, Blunt (The Five Year Engagement), Bill Paxton (2 Guns), Jeremy Piven (HBO’s Entourage) and Brendan Gleeson (Safe House) are acting under the ace direction of Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith). The Minus: The gamble. Cruise’s last four starring efforts — the jukebox musical Rock of Ages, Knight and Day, Jack Reacher and Oblivion — certainly didn’t bomb at the box office, but they definitely didn’t achieve blockbuster status either. Even though Jack Reacher’s getting a sequel in 2016 (Never Go Back), Edge of Tomorrow seems like a risky gamble for Warner Bros., especially considering the reported $175 million price tag.

The Fault in Our Stars
Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort
After turning heads as George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendents, actress Shailene Woodley signed on to star in two teen romances, one laugh-filled (The Spectacular Now) and one tear-filled (this week’s new release, The Fault in Our Stars). Then came the smash hit Divergent, which put sequels Insurgent and Allegiant, the second and third novels of Veronica Roth’s young adult fantasy series about a dystopian version of Chicago, into pre-production to meet their respective 2015 and 2016 release dates. First, however, comes this adaptation of John Green’s beloved bestselling novel. In this PG-13-rated romance, two cancer-battling teenagers (Woodley, Elgort) meet, share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional and a love that sweeps pits them on an unforgettable journey. The Plus: The source material. Not only has the novel received accolades from critics including Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times and USA Today, the book is also a favorite among such green contemporaries as Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper). Most importantly, the book has a ridiculously sizable and loyal fan base of readers who will be hot to see if H’Wood got it right. The Minus: The odds. For every YA literary-based box office hit like Breaking Dawn or Deathly Hallows, there’s a dud like Beautiful Creatures or The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones waiting in the wings. True, this isn’t a big budget fantasy adventure like those examples, but consider The Spectacular Now. Despite great reviews, it didn’t even break $7 million at the U.S. box office.

 

Now Playing

Maleficent
Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning
**1/2 — Schlepping Beauty
Magically dreamt up, but humanly flawed, this modern Disneyfication of Sleeping Beauty stirs up some beguilingly clever witchcraft … but it sits in a cauldron nonetheless. It’s a dark tale, yes, but one that happens to be family friendly. In this PG-rated fantasy adventure, a vindictive fairy (Jolie) is driven to curse an infant princess only to realize the child (Fanning), as she grows up, may be the only one who can restore peace to the kingdom. It’s a dark tale, yes, but one that happens to be family friendly. Even though the most grotesquely spooky moments stand firmly within a PG-13 rating, only toddlers or younger will fear the tale of Maleficent. But that’s this fairy tale’s blessing and curse. It lacks much of the edge and verve of Snow White and the Huntsmen, reaching instead for the heights of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal instead. While these remain highly entertaining and inventive 80s benchmarks, the descendant is often entertaining but not nearly as inventive, trading live action Magik for computer-generated trickery that’s doesn’t quite cast a complete spell. Nevermind the phone book — Angelina Jolie could read a Dollar Store receipt and hold us all in the palms of her hands. The funny thing us, her hypnotic performances have always possessed a bewitching quality whether it be her feral beauty or wicked gift for character immersion. It’s worth seeing if not just for her impossibly sympathetic turn. However, what price, story? Though we’ve become distant cynical in our post-9/11 accelerated culture, a lot of moviegoers still crave a solid fairy lively told. This attempt doesn’t reach magnificence but it’s a valiant attempt. Please try again.

A Million Ways to Die in the West
** — Blazing Saddlesores
Riding the range with a million gags and what feels like a million minutes, Seth MacFarlane’s overlong latest comedy nevertheless wants for a million laughs. Actually, we’d gratefully settle for a solid 20. In this R-rated comedy, a cowardly sheep farmer (MacFarlane) begins to fall for the mysterious new woman in town (Theron), so he puts his new-found courage to the test against her husband, a notorious gunslinger (Liam Neeson). This is not to say that A Million Ways to Die in the West plays out with the tear-soaked heaviness of John Ford’s ultimate cowboy drama The Searchers. In fact, this sometime genre spoof doles out some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Unfortunately, most of the rest are sophomoric (sometimes literal) hat-fulls of excrement. The problem is, to use a western analogy, they’re spread out through the streets of a dusty frontier town amid piles of manure. Plus, it’s NOT an outright spoof. It’s a comedy set in the West that occasionally happens to wink at Zeitgeist-dwelling moviegoers…for better and worse. Playing a man-before-his-time, MacFarlane’s farmer looks at the world with century spanning foresight, which works well … until all of the other characters start adopting the same field of vision. As the overall batting average of Ted and Fox’s animated sitcom The Family Guy evince, Seth MacFarlane is a proven laugh-getter. Take a look at Fox’s sh*tcoms The Cleveland Show (animated) and Dads (live action), however and audiences start to see a spottier record emerge. Boasting more joke duds than darlings, more of a high concept as opposed to straight-ahead story-telling and — like Ted — one too many storylines that pushes the running time to an uncomfortable length, MacFarlane’s West-world often proves as rewarding as watching a tumbleweed roll across the screen. Plus, in his first live action starring role, this former Academy Awards host often comes off as a stagy stand-up (which makes the title all the more appropriate) while the rest of the marquee cast (especially Theron) seem to be having the time of their lives. If only moviegoers were.

Chef
Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo
**** — The Art of Fresh Cooking
Simply planned but exquisitely prepared, writer/director/actor Jon Favreau’s return to Swingers-style indie filmmaking gives audiences the cinematic equivalent of a culinary triumph, keeping things awesomely cool while warming hearts. In this R-rated comedy, a chef (Favreau) loses his posh restaurant job, so he starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative promise while piecing back together his estranged family (Sofia Vergara, Emjay Anthony) and friends (Leguizamo). Chef-based films serve up a variety of dishes, be it a raison d’être like Big Night or cold leftovers like No Reservations. Granted, there are occasional comfort food indulgences like Julie and Julia, but most prove to be empty calories. Chef itself, however, is a sumptuous — well, if not feast, then — chow-down of a high order. It’s not meant to be a bill-o-fare featured in a 5-star New York Times restaurant review — just a ridiculously tasty menu of sandwich salvation you’d gratefully stand in line for. Swingers established Jon Favreau as a rising star in H’Wood. Though fewer people saw it, his directorial debut Made kept this star shooting higher. With Elf and Iron Man, however, he never burned brighter in the industry’s eyes. For this, his return to a low budget fun ‘n’ filmmaking production, he’s thankfully gone food truckin’, calling in some big names (Scarlet Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr., Dustin Hoffman) in some delicious roles that don’t detract from the story. And yes, that story’s purposely simple. Still, his blockbuster style remains top-shelf even if his bottom line ends up way lower. The script works exceedingly well and Favreau’s humble pie-eating title character does scrubby and awe-inspiring in equal but brilliant measure. Also, for once, here’s a flick that features a tween-age kid (played by Anthony) who’s not completely cloying. Tres magnifique!

Blended
Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore
* — Punch Drunk Crud
Whether it got blended, mixed, crushed, shaken, or stirred in development, Adam Sandler’s latest cocktail of romance and comedy nevertheless proves an abomination to both genres. In this PG-13-rated wannabe rom-com, a man (Sandler) and woman (Barrymore) find themselves stuck together at an African resort for families … after going out on a disastrous blind date just days before. It’s not as if Blended was ill conceived. Pairing Sandler with Drew Barrymore gave the veteran funnyman the best notch on his spotty CV yet with The Wedding Singer (leaving more serious side projects such as Punch Drunk Love and Funny People off of the books). The twosome’s follow-up, 50 First Dates, wasn’t altogether horrible but that’s because it stands among such filmgoing nightmares as The Waterboy and Jack and Jill. Offensive, unromantic and unfunny, Blended is just another laughless Sandler vehicle for which our intelligence keeps footing the bill. For God’s sake, there’s actually a scene that features this SNL alumnus riding an ostrich. Ah, Sandler! Ah, humanity!

 

Small Screens

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Chris Pine, Kevin Costner
*** — Executive Derision
In this PG-13-rated reboot of the late great Tom Clancy’s espionage franchise debuting on DVD this Tuesday, a young covert CIA analyst (Pine) uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack. Bond-ed and Bourne too late, Jack Ryan nonetheless gets reinvented for the 21st century with excitingly mixed results. Recruit’s as thrilling as hell, then as daffy as heck. It’s intricately plotted, then ploddingly silly. It’s a worthy follow-up to Patriot Games, then a Clear and Present Wanker. Ultimately, the film lays out some interesting thinking man’s groundwork full of death-defying espionage and breakneck fist and firefights, but simply arrives too late to the party. Dammit, even the action sequences that work beautifully betray the whiff of been there/done that. Though it didn’t prove to be the franchise-re-starter as intended, however, it at least showcases Costner in such top form that you’ll long for the days of No Way Out.

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Opening this weekend

 

Maleficent
Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning
In a city full of dreamers, it only makes sense that fairy tales became all the rage in H’Wood. ABC’s Once Upon a Time and NBC’s Grimm have played out on the small screen since 2011. On the big screen, so far there have been darker retellings of Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood in 2011, two takes on Snow White in 2012 (cracked dud Mirror Mirror and the ridiculously successful Snow White & the Huntsman) and 2013’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. This Christmas, the Stephen Sondheim fairy tale musical adaptation Into the Woods will bow (Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep are among the stars). First, however, comes Maleficent. In this PG-rated fantasy adventure based on the witchy villain from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, a vindictive fairy (Jolie) is driven to curse an infant princess only to realize the child (Fanning) may be the only one who can restore peace to the kingdom. The Plus: The players. Though production designer Robert Stromberg is making his feature directing debut, his fun hypnotic trailer of Maleficent is currently wowing moviegoers in theaters. Here, he’s directing one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Jolie (The Tourist), along with Fanning (Super 8), Sharlto Copley (Elysium), Juno Temple (The Three Musketeers) and Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1). The Minus: The odds. Jack the Giant Killer fell down the proverbial beanstock with critics AND audiences. For Disney, it’ll all come down to story. If it’s as good as Snow White & the Huntsmen, Maleficent will see magnificence.

A Million Ways to Die in the West
Seth McFarlane, Charlize Theron
Sure, big-time H’Wood live action directors have tried their hand at cartoons before (Robert Zemekis: Beowulf; Steven Spielberg: The Adventures of Tin Tin), but what about vice-versa? Hell yes. Shrek director Andrew Adamson helmed The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian; The Incredibles director Brad Bird directed the blockbuster smash Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and Seth MacFarlane, the mind behind Fox’s animated comedy trifecta of Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show, helmed Ted to the tune of $550 million worldwide. Next comes Ted 2 in 2015 … after A Million Ways to Die in the West, that is. In this R-rated comedy, a cowardly farmer (McFarlane) begins to fall for the mysterious new woman in town (Theron), so he puts his new found courage to the test against her husband, a notorious gun-slinger (Liam Neeson). The Plus: The genre. R-rated comedies are big business when done right (The Hangover, Bridesmaids). Based on the hilarious Red Band trailer, MacFarlane seems to have channeled the funny. Plus, the star power of Theron (Prometheus), Neeson (Non-Stop), Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables), Neil Patrick Harris (The Smurfs 2), Sarah Silverman (Wreck-It Ralph) and Giovanni Ribisi (Gangster Squad) will only help matters. The Minus: The competition. In his stab at a big screen starring role, McFarlane has to contend with the star power of Angelina Jolie and Maleficent. True, one’s PG-rated and one’s R-rated, but both are still high profile H’Wood projects aiming for the top spot.

 

Now Playing

Blended
Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore
* — Punch Drunk Crud
Whether it got blended, mixed, crushed, shaken or stirred in development, Adam Sandler’s latest cocktail of romance and comedy nevertheless proves an abomination to both genres. In this PG-13-rated wannabe rom-com, a man (Sandler) and woman (Barrymore) find themselves stuck together at an African resort for families … after going out on a disastrous blind date just days before. It’s not as if Blended was ill-conceived. Pairing Sandler with Drew Barrymore gave the veteran funnyman the best notch on his spotty CV yet with The Wedding Singer (leaving more serious side projects such as Punch Drunk Love and Funny People off of the books). The twosome’s follow-up, 50 First Dates, wasn’t altogether horrible, but that’s because it stands among such filmgoing nightmares as The Waterboy and Jack and Jill. Offensive, unromantic and unfunny, Blended serves as a slap in the face to anyone who struggles to finance independent film projects. Getting the lovers-to-be to Africa, for instance, stands as such a slapped together moment that it makes you think that this outing was simply an excuse for the cast to get a paid vacation on us. And sadly, Sandler publicly admitted this week that this was pretty much the case. Director John Ford had John Wayne (over 20 films together, including The Quiet Man and The Searchers). Martin Scorsese had Robert De Niro (eight films together, including Taxi Driver and Goodfellas). Unfortunately, Frank Coraci has Sandler (four films and counting, including Click and this flick) for which our intelligence keeps footing the bill. For God’s sake, there’s actually a scene that features this SNL alumnus riding an ostrich. Ah, Sandler! Ah, humanity!

Godzilla
Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
***1/2 — Monster Jam
Though he technically builds a far-from-perfect beast, director Gareth Edwards nonetheless unleashes a mean, green and monstrously entertaining machine on moviegoers. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, the titular skyscraper-sized fire-breathing lizard gets pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten mankind’s very existence. Godzilla takes a ridiculously long time to show up, but once he does, the titular star sure breathes a lot of fire. Neither a remake nor a reimagining, the story purposely takes a slow building approach because this American production attempts the near impossible: bringing realism to a long-stomping creature feature synonymous with Japanese culture. Just as Christopher Nolan lent naturalism to the comic book movie by striving for authenticity in The Dark Knight trilogy, so too does this production ask: It’s a far-fetched tale but how so we make it seem like it COULD happen? It took a lot of moxie for Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein to make a genuine-feeling and looking version of this franchise, especially considering that it used to center around a man in a rubber dinosaur suit. That cast is in fine form but almost beside the point.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan
**** — Glory Days
Putting the “X” in excellent moviegoing, Days of Future Past presents the greatest homo superior tale yet, upping First Class by presenting the Best Class. In this PG-13-rated comic book adventure that’s thankfully not an adaptation of the classic Moody Blues album, the X-Men (Stewart, McKellan, Halle Berry, Ellen Page) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, in his seventh outing as the character) to visit their past selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult) in a desperate effort to change history and prevent giant Sentinel robots from wiping out mutantkind.
Geek confession time: While in junior high, this reviewer read Uncanny X-Men religiously. In fact, he read writer Chris Claremont’s “Days of Future Past” storyline AND the issues where Magneto runs the Xavier School in Professor X’s absence for the sake of maintaining harmony in mutantkind — a brilliant allusion to disparity that any racial, spiritual or teenage outsider could readily identify. This flick realizes the emotional heft and action-packed blockbusting of those comic book landmarks times X. And X, in this case, marks a treasure spot for fans of comic book flicks who’ve just been gifted with one of the genre’s best “x-amples” yet. The time-bending POV between bleak futuristic dystopia and swanky shagadelic ‘70s could’ve easily become twisted up in a confusing narrative knot but Bryan Singer, returning to directing the franchise since the beautifully conceived and executed X2, keeps the storyline running smoothly with enough style and verve for two blockbusters. Jaw-dropping action gets combined with laugh-out-loud moments as well, thanks in no small part to Simon Kinberg’s letter perfect screenplay, which got fleshed out in story form by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn. The script gives the awesome cast — composed of franchise favorites and some welcome newcomers — many moments to shine. It’s so good, it makes you wonder: Where was this edgy magic when he wrote franchise low-point The Last Stand? Smartly, this scribe uses Days of Futures Past as an excuse to clean up some of the franchise’s missteps, presenting moviegoers with a clean slate and level playing field for the 2016 follow-up, Apocalypse.

Neighbors
Seth Rogen, Zac Efron
***1/2 — ‘Burbs is the Word
Thanks to a riotous script full of sophomoric humor and performances cranked up to a Freshman 15, good fencing definitely makes for a great Neighbors. In this R-rated raunchy comedy, a couple (Rogen, Rose Byrne) with a newborn baby face unexpected difficulties after a fraternity (Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) moves in next door. No, it’s not a remake of the 1981 John Belushi comedy of the same name. Instead, Neighbors aspires to be a much more popular Belushi comedy: Animal House. As benchmarks go, Neighbors has pretty much zeroed in on the frat comedy gold standard. Similarly, it powers itself on a lot of puerile gags that are cogs in a straight-ahead story, but it takes a lot of intelligent wit to pull off laughs this consistent and solid. Normally, you can’t choose the scumbag neighbors who’re going to inevitably move in next door, but you can and should choose these Neighbors if you have any shred of a sense of humor.

Screens

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Opening this week

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan
The last time that Marvel put the X in X-Men, it was with 2011’s First Class, an origin tale that proved popular with audiences and critics alike. Now, hopes are high for the next installment, which unites the original cast from the 2000-2006 trilogy with their First Class counterparts in a time-bending tale that is not an adaptation of the classic Moody Blues album. How high? 20th Century Fox already greenlit the follow-up, X-Men: Apocalypse, for 2016. In this PG-13-rated comic book adventure, the X-Men (Stewart, McKellan, Halle Berry, Ellen Page) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, in his seventh outing as the character) to visit their past selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult) in a desperate effort to change history and prevent giant Sentinel robots from wiping out mutantkind. The Plus: The franchise. Director Bryan Singer is returning to helm his first X-Men flick since 2003’s X-2, one of the greatest comic book flicks ever by this critic’s estimation. Here, he helms an epic tale pulled from the comics with a cast including Stewart (Ted), McKellan (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Jackman (Prisoners), McAvoy (Trance), Fassbender (The Counselor), Lawrence (American Hustle), Berry (The Call), Page (Inception), Hoult (Warm Bodies), Peter Dinklage (HBO’s Game of Thrones), Anna Paquin (HBO’s True Blood), Shawn Ashmore (Fox’s The Following), The Minus: The gamble. First Class only became profitable once the overseas grosses came in. Also, Singer has recently become embroiled in a H’Wood-rocking controversy involving the alleged sexual abuse of minors. Selling this high-fallutin’ time travel concept is tough enough without blowback from the industry.

Blended
Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore
Director John Ford had John Wayne (more than 20 films together, including The Quiet Man and The Searchers). Martin Scorsese had Robert De Niro (8 films together, including Taxi Driver and Goodfellas). And, for better or worse, Frank Coraci has Adam Sandler (four films and counting, including The Waterboy and this week’s new release, Blended). In this PG-13-rated comedy, a man (Sandler) and woman (Barrymore) find themselves stuck together at a resort for families … after going out on a disastrous blind date years before. The Plus: The players. Love him or hate him (and critics often love to hate Sandler), the Sandman has laughed all the way to the box office despite horrible reviews time (You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, $100 million) and time (Jack and Jill, $74 million and time again (Grown Ups 2, $133 million). Moviegoers might be hot to catch his and Barrymore’s third movie together if the grosses of The Wedding Singer ($80 million) and 50 First Dates ($120 million) stand as testament. The Minus: The competition. Even though X-Men will storm multiplexes this weekend, there remains the chance that Blended may take a strong second place. Not everybody’s into superheroes, after all. That’s My Boy ($36 million) stands proof that not every Sandler flick is an out-and-out winner.

 

Now Playing

Godzilla
Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
***1/2 — Monster Jam
Though he technically builds a far-from-perfect beast, director Gareth Edwards nonetheless unleashes a mean, green and monstrously entertaining machine on moviegoers. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, the titular skyscraper-sized fire-breathing lizard gets pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten mankind’s very existence. Godzilla takes a ridiculously long time to show up, but once he does, the titular star sure breathes a lot of fire. Neither a remake nor a reimagining, the story purposely takes a slow building approach because this American production attempts the near impossible: bringing realism to a long-stomping creature feature synonymous with Japanese culture. Just as Christopher Nolan lent naturalism to the comic book movie by striving for authenticity in The Dark Knight trilogy, so too does this production ask: It’s a far-fetched tale but how so we make it seem like it COULD happen? Oh, the science is pure Barnum, but that B-word also brings to mind the thought of can’t-miss show-stopping theatrics, which this flick boasts in blockbusting amounts. Ever since the Tokyo-based Toho Company let loose Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 film on international audiences, Godzilla retained the title “King of the Monsters” by turning his screen-time into a wrestling match with increasingly laughable monster opponents. Here, 60 years on, it took a lot of moxie for Edwards (whose only previous feature was the low-budget sci-fi thriller Monsters) and screenwriter Max Borenstein to make a genuine-feeling and looking version of this franchise, especially considering that it used to center around a man in a rubber dinosaur suit. That cast is in fine form but almost beside the point. Sure, the audience experiences the destruction through the character’ eyes and ears, but the saga of a soldier reuniting with his family often detracts from the monster mash around them. Yes, Godzilla does battle with other behemoths. More importantly, this battle is pure popcorn-munching fun.

Million Dollar Arm
Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi
*** — Underdog Millionaire
Conditioned to be feel-good sports flick using a rigorous but proven workout regimen, the predictable but likeable Million Dollar Arm nonetheless mostly hits the sweet spot. In this PG-rated sports drama based on a true story, a sports agent (Hamm) stages an unconventional recruitment strategy to get talented Indian cricket players (Suraj Sharma, etc.) to play Major League Baseball. Just like the ‘61 Yankees, Disney has an amazing and track record churning out star-studded, audience-baiting, heart-tugging sports dramas. Million Dollar Arm easily joins the ranks of 2000’s Remember the Titans, 2002’s The Rookie, 2004’s Miracle, 2006’s Invincible and 2010’s Secretariat as crowd-pleasing notches on this well-worn belt. Of course, therein lies the problem as well. Like the features listed above, it’s a solidly built mixture of laughs and tears that elicits moments of Rah Rah fist-pumping, but the whole endeavor feels manufactured like a decent weight lifter getting his game enhanced by steroids. Disney put together a great team in Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Lake Bell and Alan Arkin. Most of the movie’s scant success goes to ace screenwriter Tom McCarthy, however. Though he’s more widely known for pulling double duty writing and directing Oscar-worthy projects such as The Station Agent and The Visitor, here he only provides script duties, giving Disney exactly what they wanted: a grounder that plays out like a heavy hitter.

Neighbors
Seth Rogen, Zac Efron
***1/2 — ‘Burbs is the Word
Thanks to a riotous script full of sophomoric humor and performances cranked up to a Freshman 15, good fencing definitely makes for a great Neighbors. In this R-rated raunchy comedy, a couple (Rogen, Rose Byrne) with a newborn baby face unexpected difficulties after a fraternity (Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) moves in next door. No, it’s not a remake of the 1981 John Belushi comedy of the same name. Instead, Neighbors aspires to be a much more popular Belushi comedy: Animal House. As benchmarks go, Neighbors has pretty much zeroed in on the frat comedy gold standard. Similarly, it powers itself on a lot of puerile gags that are cogs in a straight- ahead story, but it takes a lot of intelligent wit to pull off laughs this consistent and solid. Normally, you can’t choose the scumbag neighbors who’re going to inevitably move in next door, but you can and should choose THESE Neighbors if you have any shred of a sense of humor.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone
**1/2 — 2 Webbed Feet
Though it should’ve been an outright Spectacular Spider-Man, the supposedly Amazing second adventures of our friendly neighborhood web crawler ends up to be occasionally entertaining but entirely too screen-burstingly busy. In this PG-13-rated comic book adventure, Peter Parker and his alter-ego Spider-Man (Garfield) run the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him and his loved ones (Stone, Sally Fields). It’s so ironic how Marvel Studios is planning a TV series around Daredevil but Sony, in its bid to spin Spidey’s web into an Avengers-sized franchise, gives this deuce enough story for a full network run. Not that it’s boring, mind you! The CGI swings and connects, the fight sequences shoot and score and some of the moments (dramatic and comedic) evince a strong bite. It’s the tone overall that falls down the waterspout, however. Chock full of supporting characters bound for their own features and plotlines threading into future installments, all of the world building can’t help but wash the spider out of his own sequel.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Neighbors
Seth Rogen, Zac Efron
No, it’s not a remake of the 1981 John Belushi comedy of the same name. Instead, Neighbors aspires to be a much funnier Belushi comedy: Animal House. In this R-rated comedy, a couple (Rogen, Rose Byrne) with a newborn baby face unexpected difficulties after they are forced to live next to a fraternity (Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The Plus: The genre. From The Hangover ($277 million) to Project X ($100 million) to Horrible Bosses ($117 million) to Ted ($218 million) to Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa ($102 million), American moviegoers love their Hard-R comedies. Here, Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, The Five Year Engagement) directs Rogen (This is the End), Efron (That Awkward Moment), Byrne (Insidious: Chapter 2), Franco (21 Jump Street) and Mintz-Plasse (Kick Ass 2). The Minus: The odds. From The Change-Up ($37 million) to 21 & Over ($25 million) to Movie 43 ($8 million), American moviegoers are finicky when it comes to their Hard-R comedies. Rogen is certainly no stranger to finicky audiences (Paul, The Guilt Trip).

Chef
Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara
In this R-rated comedy, a prominent chef (Favreau) loses his restaurant job and starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative promise and estranged family. The Plus: The player. Years ago, before he become an A-List director following the blockbuster success of Iron Man, Jon Favreau found H’Wood renown co-writing and co-starring in the indie comedy Swingers with Vince Vaughn. Chef looks to be a back-to-basics return for this player. Here, he’s enlisted help from Vergara (ABC’s Modern Family), Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man 3), Scarlett Johansson (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Dustin Hoffman (Little Fockers). The Minus: The odds. Favreau also had a hand in writing the painfully unfunny Couples Retreat, which should’ve been called Couples: Retreat!

Now playing

The Other Woman
Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann
** — Woman of Ill Repute
Despite some winning femme fatales, er, pratfalls, The Other Woman comes on to us aggressively, but just doesn’t have enough feminine wiles to make audiences fall head over heals with the end results. In this PG-13-rated comedy, three women (Diaz, Mann, Kate Upton) team-up to plot mutual revenge on their three-timing SOB of a husband/boyfriend (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). It appears that most of the adult comedy bits have been spayed so that the movie warrants a more general audience-friendly PG-13 rating … because teens are obviously the target demographic for comedies about a three-timing married man and the mostly middle-aged women left in his wake. Based on the boffo box office of Bad Santa, Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa, the decision to go soft should’ve gotten the flick retitled Bad Decision. Now, it just plays out like thinly veiled knock-off of First Wives Club.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone
**1/2 — 2 Webbed Feet
Though it should’ve been an outright Spectacular Spider-Man, the supposedly Amazing second adventures of our friendly neighborhood web crawler end up to be occasionally entertaining but entirely too screen-burstingly busy. In this PG-13-rated comic book adventure, Peter Parker and his alter-ego Spider-Man (Garfield) run the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him and his loved ones (Stone, Sally Field). It’s so ironic how Marvel Studios is planning a TV series around Daredevil but Sony, in its bid to spin Spidey’s web into an Avengers-sized franchise, gives this deuce enough story for a full network run. Not that it’s boring, mind you! The CGI swings and connects, the fight sequences shoot and score and some of the moments (dramatic and comedic) evince a strong bite. It’s the tone overall that falls down the waterspout, however. Chock full of supporting characters bound for their own features and plotlines threading into future installments, all of the world-building can’t help but wash the spider out of his own sequel. Hiring Andrew Garfield: That’s the one thing this reboot of a classic comic book gets letter perfectly right. He nails a ridiculously beloved fictional character that’s inhabited comic readers’ hearts and minds to the same extent that Daniel Day-Lewis channeled a living breathing American forefather in Lincoln … if only the production got mounted a decade earlier. Based on Marvel Studios’ successful formula (Spider-Man might be a Marvel comic, but the rights are owned by Sony), everybody’s rushing to create a supergroup brand of their own a la The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows the signs of studio tinkering along the lines of “We’re gonna do this so you gotta include that.” Beyond this, there are some screenwriting grievances. With an acclaimed package deal of writers (Star Trek Into Darkness’s Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtman) plus one additional scribe (Jeff Pinker), the voices of these separate cooks show through. The patchwork of scenes are inconsistent (Garfield’s scenes with Stone and Field shine with an authenticity while his interactions with villains play out archly laughable like this was a Saturday morning cartoon). Still, it’s an improvement upon its predecessor, despite the padding. Hell, even a buffet has some standout dishes.

Heaven is For Real
Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly
** — Heaven Can Grate
A small screen message movie trying to put on its big boy pants for the big screen, Heaven is For Real puts forth a message worth ruminating about even if the story feels like it just came off of a greeting card rack. In this PG-rated drama, a small-town pastor (Kinnear) must find the courage and conviction to share his son’s life-changing near-death experience with his congregation. The family sings hymns together in the car. The parents say just the right things at the right times and are still madly in love with each other. The son looks as impossibly cute as a Gerber Baby. The father won’t take money for services provided to cash-strapped clients. His best friend quips one-liners when things get too heavy. Yep, it’s a formulaic feel-good story. Even if it unapologetically aims itself squarely at the Christian demographic, the movie’s talking points smartly prove universal (the book it was based on, after all, became a universal bestseller). Also, the story earns brownie points for boldly flying in the face of conventional Christian doctrine, raising further spiritual questions about the afterlife more than preaching scripture down to audiences. Still, despite the best efforts of a great cast trying to act their way around stale dialogue, Heaven is For Real plays out like a sermon that’s way too polished to be a truly effective thought-provoker. Oh, real life comes complete with comic relief, but it’s rarely on cue and never obligatory. People need to relate — not wonder how their lives can look like a Norman Rockwell painting, too.

Brick Mansions
Paul Walker, RZA
**1/2 — Escape from New Yawn
Propulsive and explosive but not quick witted enough, late actor Paul Walker’s penultimate adventure moves fast and furiously but still manages to come across as slow witted. In this PG-13-rated crime thriller, an undercover Detroit cop (Walker) navigates a dangerous neighborhood surrounded by a containment wall in order to bring down a crime lord (RZA). The story unapologetically embraces preposterousness at an automatic clip. Still, some of the sequences hit moviegoers like a ton of Brick Mansions, especially those involving free running fisticuffs. Sadly, however, all involved don’t think twice about including poorly edited filmic tricks like jump shot editing in lieu of continuity. Despite knowing exactly what it is, this “Slam Bam Thank You, Ma’am” actioner gets average results because it holds back. It should’ve been built like an R-rated Brick Craphouse. With a set-up this ludicrous, this flick needed to be funnier, ballsier, and out-and-out crazier like the flick it’s based on, Escape from District 13.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone
Merely five years after the conclusion of director Sam Raimi’s super-successful Spider-Man trilogy, Sony looked to start from scratch by reinventing Marvel Comics’ famed web-crawler under the direction of Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer). At the worldwide box office, this comic book flick took in nearly $500 million — nearly double its estimated budget. In the hearts of many critics, however (this one included), the new Spider-Man banked a lot less lucre. In this PG-13-rated comic book adventure, Peter Parker and his alter-ego Spider-Man (Garfield) run the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him and his loved ones (Stone, Sally Field). The Plus: The franchise. Spider-Man consistently ranks as Marvel’s most popular and endearing characters. Here, returning Spider-stars Garfield (The Social Network), Stone (Gangster Squad), Field (Lincoln) and Campbell Scott (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) join newcomers Jamie Foxx (White House Down), Dane DeHaan (The Place Beyond the Pines), Paul Giamatti (12 Years a Slave), Felicity Jones (Like Crazy), B.J. Novak (Saving Mr. Banks) and Chris Cooper (August: Osage County) again under the direction of Webb. The Minus: The gamble. Fans and critics alike disliked Spider-Man 3, in which Raimi overloaded the story with multiple villains. With Foxx playing Electro, DeHaan playing the Green Goblin, Giamatti playing the Rhino and Jones potentially playing Black Cat, this 2 hour and 26 minute sequel looks to be stocked to the gills. More so, Sony has already planned a spin-off for the villains (The Sinister Six) as well as set a release date for The Amazing Spider-Man 3 (June 10, 2016). News that critics have largely been divided following press screenings shows that Sony might be getting ahead of itself, forsaking story in lieu of rushing an Avengers-style franchise into theaters.

Walk of Shame
Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden
In this R-rated comedy opening in select cinemas and on On-Demand, a one-night stand leaves a reporter (Banks) stranded in downtown L.A. without a phone, car, ID or money and only eight hours to make it to a career-making interview for a news anchor job … on the other side of town. The Plus: The genre. From The Hangover ($277 million) to Project X ($100 million) to Horrible Bosses ($117 million) to Ted ($218 million) to Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa ($102 million), American moviegoers love their Hard-R comedies. Here, Steven Brill (Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds) directs Banks (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Marsden (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues) from his own screenplay. The Minus: The odds. From The Change-Up ($37 million) to 21 & Over ($25 million) to Movie 43 ($8 million), American moviegoers are finicky when it comes to their Hard-R comedies, especially considering it follows the as-yet-unsuccessful multi-screen roll-out formula (movie and home theater release on the same day) as 2012’s R-rated Bachelorette, which banked less than a $1 million domestically.

 

Now playing

The Other Woman
Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann
** — Woman of Ill Repute
Despite some winning femme fatales, er, pratfalls, The Other Woman comes on to us aggressively but just doesn’t have enough feminine wiles to make audiences fall head over heels with the end results. In this PG-13-rated comedy, three women (Diaz, Mann, Kate Upton) team up to plot mutual revenge on their three-timing SOB of a husband/boyfriend (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). You can see how this all looked great on paper. Based on a ‘Black List’ script (a survey of H’Wood insiders’ insiderimost lauded as-yet-unproduced screenplays) by Melissa Stack, the movie does — to her credit — feature several chuckle-worthy moments that come THISclose to becoming out-and-out laugh riots. What’s seems to be holding these gags back from awesomedom? Well, it generally appears that most of the adult comedy bits have been spayed so that the movie warrants a more general audience-friendly PG-13 rating … because teens are obviously the target demographic for comedies about a three-timing married man and the mostly middle-aged women left in his wake. Based on the boffo box office of Bad Santa, Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa, the decision to go soft should’ve gotten the flick re-titled Bad Decision. Now, it just plays out like thinly veiled knock-off of First Wives Club. Not for lack of trying on the part of the cast, however. Thanks to cutting her teeth on comedy at the very start of her career (The Mask, There’s Something About Mary), Cameron Diaz’s comic chops have only gotten better with age as evidenced by underrated gems like In Her Shoes. Likewise, Diaz’s co-star Kate Upton (also a model-turned-actress) shows great promise. Leslie Mann, however, steals the show, killing every scene she’s in with a ditsy but heart-tugging turn and letter-perfect comic timing. A veteran of husband Judd Apatow’s comedies (Knocked Up, Funny People, This is 40), she’s more than earned a starring role. If only her material behaved much more badly.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham
****1/2 — Plaza Sweet
Like a Bottle Rocket off of Rushmore into Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s Royal, Fantastic and — yes — Grand latest takes up residence in your mind’s eye with nary of the Limited waterlogged whimsy of The Life Aquatic. In fact, it’s his masterwork … thus far. In this R-rated comedy, Anderson presents the adventures of Gustave H (Fiennes), a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel in a war-torn European nation and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend. Here, Anderson’s not just pulling the strings on a curriculum, family tree or scout troop of his own design, the writer/director integrates filmgoers seamlessly into a decades-spanning multi-layered story set in a completely credible fictitious nation. Anderson’s charming verve, meticulously planned aesthetics and vintage-sounding wordsmithing work best when he keeps at least one of your feet on the ground even when he’s already stuck your head in the clouds. That’s the beauty of this particular check-in, however. Even the most fantastical moments (and there are many) somehow feel lived-in and rooted in some kind of nostalgic familiarity.

Brick Mansions
Paul Walker, RZA
**1/2 – Escape from New Yawn
Propulsive and explosive but not quick witted enough, late actor Paul Walker’s penultimate adventure moves fast and furiously but still manages to come across as slow witted. In this PG-13-rated crime thriller, an undercover Detroit cop (Walker) navigates a dangerous neighborhood surrounded by a containment wall in order to bring down a crime lord (RZA). Even though it ultimately involves an actual rocket, Brick Mansions never pretends to involve actual rocket science. The story unapologetically embraces preposterousness at an automatic clip. Still, some of the sequences hit moviegoers like a ton of Brick Mansions, especially those involving free running fisticuffs. Sadly, however, all involved don’t think twice about including poorly edited filmic tricks like jump shot editing in lieu of continuity. Despite knowing exactly what it is, this ‘Slam Bam Thank You, Ma’am’ actioner gets average results because it holds back. It should’ve been built like an R-rated brick craphouse. With a set-up this ludicrous, this flick needed to be funnier, ballsier and out-and-out crazier like the flick it’s based on, Escape from District 13. Moviegoers keen to catch one of the last notches on always entertaining actor Paul Walker’s CV may want to pump their brakes until Fast & Furious 7 bows next year … though, if you saw the last chapter, this too holds dubious prospects. Not surprisingly, moviegoers subjected to sometime screenwriter Luc Besson’s recent output of dummy bullet stories (Columbiana, The Family, 3 Days to Kill) will find that he hasn’t improved his craft much with this adaptation of his own story. Most of the problems prove technical, however. Editor-turned-director Camille Delamarre should’ve spent more time honing her former vocation before remaking a well regarded French actioner. Brick Mansions is more choppily stitched together than a dollar store Frankenstein.

Transcendence
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall
** — Stranger Tides have Happened
Transcending disbelief and sometimes even entertainment value, Johnny Depp’s foray into weird science jacks into a concept that’s too high fallutin’ for the blockbusting H’Wood presentation. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, a terminally ill scientist (Depp) uploads his mind to a computer, which grants him power beyond his wildest dreams and makes him unstoppable. True, the glitzy movie compellingly presents some potentially prescient themes but, because it very much wants to be a crowd pleasing techno thriller as much as a critically lauded ‘Thing that makes you go hmmm,’ the flick can’t help but make any thought-provoking moments feel like penny arcade sociology.  Here, first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen’s story just can’t elevate this head-scratching — but beautiful looking — science project beyond wannabe sci-fi blockbuster.

 

Small Screens

Labor Day
Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin
***1/2 — Thank You for Stoking
In this new-to-DVD PG-13-rated adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s 1987-set novel, a depressed single mom (Winslet) and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man (Brolin) shelter, only to gradually learn his true story as the police close in. Far from being a déjà vexed sequel to Groundhog Day, Jason Reitman instead gives filmgoers a textured and nuanced love story beautifully set against a 80s backdrop that’s the furthest thing from laborious. If the look of Labor Day belies a 30 year-old drama unfettered by modern cynicism, it’s completely intentional. The film mirrors such straight ahead, death-tinged 80s coming of age stories as River’s Edge and Stand By Me. It’s the feel, however, that truly sets the suspense and emotion on a perpetual simmer. It’s not a simplistic film; it’s an intricately constructed doomed romance masquerading as a simplistic period piece. Unfortunately, by proxy, the photography occasionally brings to mind dated sudsy TV movies more than the modern classics listed above.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

 

The Other Woman
Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann
Cameron Diaz is keeping busy. This year alone, she has two projects set to bow. Next, she’ll co-star with Jason Segel in the raunchy comedy Sex Tape (July 25) and then take on the villainous role of Miss Hannigan in the big-screen remake of Annie (December 19) … after The Other Woman, of course. In this PG-13-rated comedy, three women (Diaz, Mann, Kate Upton) team-up to plot mutual revenge on their three-timing SOB of a husband/boyfriend (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The Plus: The players. Here, Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) directs a cast that includes Diaz (The Counselor), Mann (This is 40), Upton (The Three Stooges), Coster-Waldau (HBO’s Game of Thrones) and Don Johnson (Django Unchained). The Minus: The odds. Though based on a “Black List” script (a survey of H’Wood insiders’ insiderimost lauded as-yet-unproduced screenplays) by Melissa Stack, this looks to be a thinly veiled remake of First Wives Club by a director who’s never done a straight comedy. Based on Captain America and Rio 2’s continued battle for the box office, this Other contender faces stiff competition, especially if left up to the graces of critics.

 

Brick Mansions
Paul Walker, RZA
In this PG-13-rated crime thriller, an undercover Detroit cop (Walker) navigates a dangerous neighborhood surrounded by a containment wall in order to bring down a crime lord (RZA). The Plus: The player. Following his tragic death in a high speed car wreck, some fans might be hot to see the late Paul Walker in his second to last performance (Fast & Furious 7 is set to bow on April 10, 2015). The Minus: The results. This is the directorial debut of Camille Delamarre, the editor of Taken 2 and Transporter 3. Plus, the participation of screenwriter Luc Besson, who’s turned out back (Columbiana) to back (The Family) to back (3 Days to Kill) duds, speaks poorly for Walker’s penultimate adventure, despite an action-packed trailer.

 

Now Playing

Transcendence
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall
** — Stranger Tides have Happened
Transcending disbelief and sometimes even entertainment value, Johnny Depp’s foray into weird science jacks into a concept that’s too high fallutin’ for the blockbusting H’Wood presentation. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, a terminally ill scientist (Depp) uploads his mind to a computer, which grants him power beyond his wildest dreams and makes him unstoppable. True, the glitzy movie compellingly presents some potentially prescient themes but, because it very much wants to be a crowd pleasing techno thriller as much as a critically lauded thing that makes you go hmmm, the flick can’t help but make any thought provoking moments feel like penny arcade sociology. Yes, to an accelerated culture that lives most of its life not so much in the ether as the Ethernet, it seems very possible that someone’s consciousness could get lived out on the worldwide web … just not as a War Games retread with more beautiful people. If it weren’t for the well-crafted trappings, Bona fide movie star Johnny Depp has been down this trippy megalomaniacal road before (Captain Jack Sparrow, the Mad Hatter, Barnabus Collins … actually, ANY flick he stars in these days, it seems), but for most of Transcendence, he’s relegated to performing a Max Headroom — a literal talking head pulling the technological strings of terror. He accomplishes this not to the Oscar-worthy level of quality rightly afforded Scarlett Johansson’s voice-only turn in Her, but more with the it’s-my-world-you’re-just-living-in-it self-important bravado of Space Ghost as the host of Coast to Coast. This leaves impossibly pretty Brits Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Cillian Murphy to do much of the ‘heavy’ lifting by ruffling their brows whenever a moral conundrum pops up because Morgan Freeman’s just there to play his usual sage-like self when this plan goes awry (thankfully, the producers opted out of having him perform obligatory narration duties). Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister creates a rousing spectacle full of breathtaking SFX-infused action that generates more than a few hair-raising moments. First-time screenwriter Jack Paglen’s story, however, just can’t elevate this head-scratching science project beyond wannabe sci-fi blockbuster. For a benchmark, all involved should have looked to Pfister’s ex-boss Nolan, who brilliantly bridged entertainment and introspection in an easily digestible sci-fi-inspired pill called Inception.

 

Rio 2
Voices of Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway
**1/2 — Way to Keep it Rio
Birds of a familiar feather flocking together for more of the same, the loud, colorful, but ultimately so-so sequel. Rio 2 doesn’t go south so much as stick to the same no-frills flight pattern. In this G-rated animated musical comedy, Blu (Eisenberg), Jewel (Hathaway) and their three kids get hurtled Rio de Janeiro to the wilds of the Amazon where they go beak-to-beak with the vengeful Nigel (Jemaine Clement) and Jewel‘s father (Andy Garcia). Stocked full of Brazilian nuts, the Amazon-set follow-up rightly tries upping the character count, “dramatic” ante, slapsticky gags, and adult-pleasing one-liners … but the end result still often feels like reheated leftovers. Of course, families with non-discerning children won’t care much but this second helping is more of a deuce than the original, pushing in its chips on an Eco-themed Be Yourself theme that feels like it was culmed from the deleted scenes from the cutting room floor of Happy Feet.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
***1/2 — American Beauty
A lion in Winter, spring or any season for that matter, Captain America soldiers on in an impressively smart, sleek, and superior sequel that’s more of a superspy thriller than superhero actioner. In this PG-13-rated actioner, Steve Rogers (Evans) struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The World War II backstory lain, Winter Soldier tells a much more modern tale that still respects the past by brilliantly playing on Cap’s fish-out-of-water reluctant heroism with tongue firmly in cheek. All of this, however, gets delivered in the body of a fast-paced techno thriller with the white knuckle conspiratorial tone of a ‘70s spy caper. Without the razor-sharp casting and direction, however, this flick would tinkle like a spring shower rather than rage like a storm you want to chase right into the eye of Avengers 2.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham
****1/2 — Plaza Sweet
Like a Bottle Rocket off of Rushmore into Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s Royal, Fantastic and — yes — Grand latest takes up residence in your mind’s eye with nary of the Limited waterlogged whimsy of The Life Aquatic. In fact, it’s his masterwork … thus far. In this R-rated comedy, Anderson presents the adventures of Gustave H (Fiennes), a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel in a war-torn European nation, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend. Here, Anderson’s not just pulling the strings on a curriculum, family tree, or scout troop of his own design, the writer/director integrates filmgoers seamlessly into a decades-spanning multi-layered story set in a completely credible fictitious nation. Anderson’s charming verve, meticulously planned aesthetics, and vintage-sounding wordsmithing work best when he keeps at least one of your feet on the ground even when he’s already stuck your head in the clouds. That’s the beauty of this particular check-in, however. Even the most fantastical moments (and there are many) somehow feel lived-in and rooted in some kind of nostalgic familiarity.

 

Small Screens

True Detective
Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson
****1/2 — In the Fete of the Night
You know how most hero worshiped programs never live up to the hype? Well, everything you’ve heard about this blistering Detective tale rings ear-piercingly True. This HBO crime thriller anthology for adult audiences follows Louisiana State Police Criminal Investigations Division homicide Detectives Cohle and Hart (McConaughey, Harrelson) as they hunt for a serial killer across 17 years. Hard-boiled and hard-wired, this eight episode gem turns the police procedural on its head with a gritty look into the dubious Jambalaya justice doled out during a puzzling Bayou crime spree. So great that it makes vanilla network shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Criminal Minds suitable for a laugh-track, True Detective only works so well because of its Emmy-worthy turns by McConaughey and Harrelson as well as the brilliant writing by creator Nic Pizzolatto, who not only penned every episode but gifted pay cable viewers with two of the most hypnotic and eccentric TV cops yet.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Transcendence
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall
Thanks to Disney, Johnny Depp has a full dance card in 2016. Sequels to both Alice in Wonderland (Through the Looking Glass) and Pirates of the Caribbean (Dead Men Tell No Tales) will bow that year. Not that he’s slacking off in 2014, mind you. He still has three projects to be released (Mortdecai, London Fields and Into the Woods) … after Transcendence, that is. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, a terminally ill scientist (Depp) uploads his mind to a computer, which grants him power beyond his wildest dreams and makes him unstoppable. The Plus: The players. This high concept flick stars Depp (Dark Shadows), Hall (Iron Man 3), Morgan Freeman (Last Vegas), Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight Rises), Cole Hauser (Olympus Has Fallen), Paul Bettany (Priest) and Kate Mara (Netflix’s House of Cards). The Minus: The gamble. With Transcendence, Christopher Nolan’s (The Dark Knight, Inception) longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister is making his directorial debut. A reported budget of $100 million makes this an expensive set of training wheels for a first-timer, especially on a holiday weekend known for courting families.

A Haunted House 2
Marlon Wayans, Jaime Pressley
In this R-rated send-up of everything from Paranormal Activity to The Conjuring, Malcolm (Wayans) starts fresh with his new girlfriend (Pressley) and her two children by moving them into their dream home … which, of course, gets plagued by bizarre paranormal events. The Plus: The genre. Love them or hate them, spoof comedies have ruled at the box office before, regardless of quality (Not Another Teen Movie, Date Movie, Epic Movie). The Wayans family (Marlon stars in, writes and produces A Haunted House 2) has found a particular knack for mining fool’s gold out of this genre. Keenan Ivory, Shawn and Marlon Wayans all had a hand in the Scary Movie franchise, which turned the art of parody into a money-making machine for Dimension Films. Likewise, Haunted House scared up over $40 million. The Minus: The odds. Superhero Movie and the Wayans’ own Dance Flick brought diminishing returns to the genre, bringing the genre to all but a stop as of 2009. With the Scary Movie franchise still in the mix, is this genre plain scared out?

 

Now Playing

Rio 2
Voices of Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway
**1/2 — Way to Keep it Rio
Birds of a familiar feather flocking together for more of the same, the loud, colorful, but ultimately so-so sequel Rio 2 doesn’t go south so much as stick to the same no-frills flight pattern. In this G-rated animated musical comedy, Blu (Eisenberg), Jewel (Hathaway) and their three kids get hurdled Rio de Janeiro to the wilds of the Amazon where they go beak-to-beak with the vengeful Nigel (Jemaine Clement) and meet the most fearsome adversary of all: Jewel’s father (Andy Garcia). Stocked full of Brazilian nuts, the Amazon-set follow-up rightly tries upping the character count, “dramatic” ante, slapsticky gags, and adult-pleasing one-liners … but the end result still often feels like reheated leftovers. Of course, families with non-discerning children won’t care much, but this second helping is more of a deuce than the original, pushing in its chips on an eco-themed “Be Yourself” theme that feels like it was culled from the deleted scenes from the cutting room floor of Happy Feet. Mind you, it’s a visual feast for the eye and, occasionally, the ears but why not just re-watch the superior first go-round? There’s not a bad note among the celebrity pipes hired to give lip service to the fuss and feathers. Director Carlos Saldanha (the Ice Age series) and Blue Sky Studios definitely possess a gift for bringing funtastic characters to life and Rio 2 definitely boasts its share, even if some returning faces literally and ridiculously get airlifted into the action. When a ballad by a poison tree frog emerges as the flick’s standout moment, however, it might be time to put the ixnay on chapter three.

Draft Day
Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner
*** — Any Driven Sunday
An occasionally white knuckle Draft worth not dodging, Kevin Costner’s latest seizes the Day for diehard sports fans. For a football flick, there’s decidedly very little gridiron action. In this PG-13-rated sports drama, general manager Sonny Weaver (Costner) has the opportunity to rebuild his team when he sacrifices all to trade for the number one pick (Chadwick Boseman) at the NFL Draft. Moving the game from the backfield to the back offices, Draft Day plays out more like a political thriller with laughs and romance shoehorned in. The movie does most of this surprisingly well, juggling comedy, drama, and sports references in equal but awkward measure. Granted, many of the yuks and NFL worship get laid on too thick, but it’s the clever machinations behind the trade negotiations that truly keep audiences invested … that and the MVP-worthy lead performance, that is. If only the movie didn’t often feel like a Rah Rah advert for Monday Night Football. Kevin Costner made a name for himself with baseball flicks (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For the Love of the Game) but he takes to this pigskin dramedy brilliantly. Rather than The Longest Yawn, he makes a somewhat decent flick outright enjoyable for moviegoers. Under the direction of veteran filmmaker Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters), who makes split screen suddenly seem fresh and new, Draft Day is better than the material provided. Screenwriter Rajiv Joseph is the kind of guy you’d want on your pub trivia team for sports statistical minutia alone but the sometimes predictable storytelling feels quite Screenwriting 101 … until the ticking clock chess match of a climax recovers the story from any previous fumbles.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
***1/2 — American Beauty
A lion in Winter, spring, or any season for that matter, Captain America soldiers on in an impressively smart, sleek, and superior sequel that’s more of a superspy thriller than superhero actioner. In this PG-13-rated actioner, Steve Rogers (Evans) struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The World War II backstory lain, Winter Soldier tells a much more modern tale that still respects the past by brilliantly playing on Cap’s fish-out-of-water reluctant heroism with tongue firmly in cheek. All of this, however, gets delivered in the body of a fast-paced techno thriller with the white knuckle conspiratorial tone of a ‘70s spy caper. Without the razor-sharp casting and direction, however, this flick would tinkle like a spring shower rather than rage like a storm you want to chase right into the eye of Avengers 2.

Noah
Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly
*** — Boat Trippy
Raising a flood of inspiration and ire, Darren Aronofsky’s mystical-meets-Biblical take on Noah engagingly goes from Requiem for a Fever Dream to Man’s Black Swan Song in 2 hours and 20 minutes. In this PG-13-rated adventure, a man (Crowe) suffering visions of an apocalyptic deluge takes measures to protect his family (Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman). Of course, the Holy Book has always danced with mysticism … or vice versa. Look at The Bible with open eyes and it plays stranger than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Martin’s Game of Thrones, an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in historical fiction with dragons and magic. So, it makes the sense that the man who made mind-bending but eye-popping hippie dippy phooey The Fountain would forego a straight ahead literal interpretation of a child’s Bible story. Like Cecil B. DeMille on peyote, Darren Aronofsky has an epic vision. It’s a Goldilocks tale — sometimes he offers up aesthetics that are too hot, too cold, but occasionally produces many that are JUST right. It’s a successful failure, earning points for not playing it safe.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham
****1/2 — Plaza Sweet
Like a Bottle Rocket off of Rushmore into Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s Royal, Fantastic, and — yes — Grand latest takes up residence in your mind’s eye with nary of the Limited waterlogged whimsy of The Life Aquatic. In fact, it’s his masterwork … thus far. In this R-rated comedy, Anderson presents the adventures of Gustave H (Fiennes), a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel in a war-torn European nation, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend. Here, Anderson’s not just pulling the strings on a curriculum, family tree, or scout troop of his own design, the writer/director integrates filmgoers seamlessly into a decades-spanning multi-layered story set in a completely credible fictitious nation. Anderson’s charming verve, meticulously planned aesthetics and vintage-sounding wordsmithing work best when he keeps at least one of your feet on the ground even when he’s already stuck your head in the clouds. That’s the beauty of this particular check-in, however. Even the most fantastical moments (and there are many) somehow feel lived-in and rooted in some kind of nostalgic familiarity.

 

 

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Rio 2
Voices of Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway
Pixar and Dreamworks aren’t the only game in town when it comes to blockbuster animation. With the gi-normous back-to-back-to-back-to-back success of the Ice Age series, 20th Century Animation found further franchise potential when Rio proved a carnival at the box office. Next up is Epic and Ice Age 5 … after Rio 2, that is. In this G-rated animated musical comedy, Blu (Eisenberg), Jewel (Hathaway) and their three kids get hurtled Rio de Janeiro to the wilds of the Amazon where they go beak-to-beak with the vengeful Nigel (Jemaine Clement) and meet the most fearsome adversary of all: Jewel’s father (Andy Garcia). The Plus: The franchise. Rio banked $143 million at the domestic box office. Moviegoers will flock to the follow-up — it’s just a question of: How much? Given that a holiday weekend is approaching, it’ll probably bank a lot. Plus, this flick boasts the A-List pipes of Eisenberg (Now You See Me), Hathaway (Les Miserables), Leslie Mann (This is 40), Kristin Chenoweth (Hit and Run), Clement (Men in Black 3), Rodrigo Santoro (The Last Stand), George Lopez (The Smurfs 2), Garcia (City Island), Jamie Foxx (White House Down), Tracy Morgan (NBC’s 30 Rock), Miguel Ferrer (CBS’s NCIS: Los Angeles) and Will.i.am (Date Night). The Minus: Sophomore slump. As Dreamworks recently discovered, for every hit like The Croods there’s a relative disappointment like Turbo waiting in the wings. It all comes down to quality.

Draft Day
Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner
It seems like it was just months ago that this column raved that Kevin Costner was the best part of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and deserved to be given a another shot at leading man status …uh, actually it was just weeks ago. Then came 3 Days to Kill. Be careful what you wish for. In this PG-13-rated sports drama, general manager Sonny Weaver (Costner) has the opportunity to rebuild his team when he sacrifices all to trade for the number one pick (Chadwick Boseman) at the NFL Draft. The Plus: The players. In addition to Costner (Man of Steel), Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) directs a cast includes Garner (The Dallas Buyers Club), Boseman (42), Joe Mangianello (Sabotage), Sam Elliot (Ghost Rider), Rosanna Arquette (Joe Dirt), Terry Crews (The Expendables 2), Frank Langella (Muppets Most Wanted), Denis Leary (The Amazing Spider-Man), Sean Combs (Get Him to the Greek) and Ellen Bursytn (Lifetime’s Flowers in the Attic) plus appearances by sports figures such as Arian Foster and Deion Sanders. The Minus: The reality. Remember when Reitman was a hot H’Wood commodity? Nope? Well, that’s because the film industry has a short memory when it comes to box office duds (Evolution, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, No Strings Attached). Though Costner certainly deserves a Liam Neeson-style career rejuvenation (Taken, The Grey), 3 Days to Kill shows evidence that he’s not being too choosy script-wise.

 

Now Playing

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
***1/2 — American Beauty
A lion in Winter, Spring or any season for that matter, Captain America soldiers on in an impressively smart, sleek and superior sequel that’s more of a superspy thriller than superhero actioner. In this PG-13-rated actioner, Steve Rogers (Evans) struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The First Avenger proved better than average though not by much. Of course, it held the dubious distinction of setting up a decades-spanning origin tale of a whitebread do-gooder who’s never seen the rock star popularity of fellow Marvel-ous heroes Spider-Man or the X-Men. With so much story and, perhaps, not as much audience interest, director Joe Johnston carved out an impressively rollicking niche in pre-Avengers moviedom. The World War II backstory lain, Winter Soldier tells a much more modern tale that still respects the past by brilliantly playing on Cap’s fish-out-of-water reluctant heroism with tongue firmly in cheek (see: Rogers walking through a Smithsonian exhibit on … well, him). All of this, however, gets delivered in the body of a fast-paced techno thriller with the white knuckle conspiratorial tone of a 70s spy caper. Capping off a star-making series of performances as super soldier Steve Rogers, Chris Evans perfectly provides the pulse behind the action. Blond, blue-eyed and chiseled, he looks the part of a white-hatted lunk but he genuinely shoulders the world as a superman-out-time. Providing whipsmart backup and whiplash moves, a knee-weakingly vampy Scarlet Johansson nearly makes moviegoers think this a double bill despite her supporting status. Without the razor-sharp precision of directors/brothers Anthony and Chris Russo, however, this flick would tinkle like a Spring shower rather than a storm you want to chase right into the eye of Avengers 2.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham
****1/2 – Plaza Sweet
Like a Bottle Rocket off of Rushmore into Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s Royal, Fantastic and — yes — Grand latest takes up residence in your mind’s eye with nary of the limited waterlogged whimsy of The Life Aquatic. In fact, it’s his masterwork … thus far. In this R-rated comedy, Anderson presents the adventures of Gustave H (Fiennes), a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel in a war-torn European nation, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend. Here, Anderson’s not just pulling the strings on a curriculum, family tree, or scout troop of his own design, the writer/director integrates filmgoers seamlessly into a decades-spanning multi-layered story set in a completely credible fictitious nation. Who DOES that? Well, it’s more of a question of: Who COULD do it? At first glance, with its patchwork of numerous A-List stars and minute details, Grand Budapest Hotel looks as dangerously over-indulgent as the way-too-whimsical Steve Zissou, which failed to tether filmgoers much — if at all — to reality. Anderson’s charming verve, meticulously planned aesthetics, and vintage-sounding wordsmithing work best when he keeps at least one of your feet on the ground even when he’s already stuck your head in the clouds. That’s the beauty of this particular check-in, however. Even the most fantastical moments (and there are many) somehow feel lived-in and rooted in some kind of nostalgic familiarity. As for the myriad of stars, they’re not simply stunt-casted. Rather, every character and performance plays an integral part in Anderson’s madcap mechanics. Fiennes, however, manages to wrap every viewer around his pinky — a high accolade given there’s nothing close to resembling a low point in this talent roster. True, you could gripe that Saoirse Ronan has a hard time hiding her Irish brogue, but that’s just nit-picking apart Anderson’s most adult, maudlin, yet loveliest work yet.

Noah
*** — Boat Trippy
Raising a flood of inspiration and ire, Darren Aronofsky’s mystical-meets-Biblical take on Noah engagingly goes from Requiem for a Fever Dream to Man’s Black Swan Song in 2 hours and 20 minutes. In this PG-13-rated adventure, a man (Crowe) suffering visions of an apocalyptic deluge takes measures to protect his family (Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman). Of course, the Holy Book has always danced with mysticism … or vice versa. Look at The Bible with open eyes and it plays stranger than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Martin’s Game of Thrones, an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in historical fiction with dragons and magic. So, it makes the sense that the man who made mind-bending but eye-popping hippie dippy phooey The Fountain would forego a straight ahead literal interpretation of a child’s Bible story. Like Cecil B. DeMille on peyote, Darren Aronofsky has an epic vision. It’s a Goldilocks tale — sometimes he offers up aesthetics that are too hot, too cold, but occasionally produces many that are JUST right. It’s a successful failure, earning points for not playing it safe.

Bad Words
Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn
***1/2 – Bee Cool
This reviewer has words for Bad Words and they’re mostly really good. In this R-rated foul-mouthed societal dust-up, a former spelling bee loser (Bateman) sets out to exact revenge by exploiting a loophole and attempting to win as an adult. Oh, the comedy is not without its bell-ringing missteps but nonetheless ends up to be a solid continuation of the H’Wood trend of adults behaving badly—Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, and Bad Grandpa. Littered with laugh-out-loud moments throughout its short running time, the movie succeeds chiefly because of the name above all others. Given that it’s a directorial debut, however, this name — B-A-T-E-M-A-N — deserves more than an honorable mention. True, the flick does cop out by un-Scrooging its curmudgeon, but it’s done with such style and, ahem, character that it’s definitely worth sitting a spell.

 

Small Screens

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig
***1/2 – Beautiful Dreamer
In this PG-rated fantasy adventure premiering on DVD on Tuesday, a day-dreamer who escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies (Stiller) embarks on a globe-trotting journey more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined. A colorful and rich fever dream that could’ve easily played out like a nightmare on screen, Ben Stiller’s not-so-Secret Life as a director instead colors outside of the H’Wood lines to great affect with his latest. Even Walter’s job in Negative Assets sounds innocuous, but the film presents a vibrant palette and expansive canvas that’s every bit as ambitious as Life of Pi. Finding invention in convention, Stiller expands James Thurber’s whimsical short story about a lovelorn daydreamer into a fantastical feature-length narrative about a forgettable everyman whose life turns unforgettable when his dreams inexorably become realities. Sure, the storyline becomes contrived at times but this rare shot of optimism truly taps into a fun-filled dreamstate.